West Brom 2 Rotherham United 1
Albion finally recorded their first home league victory over Rotherham United at the fourth time of asking, but it took two goals in three minutes late in the game to secure the three points. The winner was Rekeem Harper’s first senior goal for the club and capped off what was a man-of-the-match performance from the academy graduate.
There were echoes of the game at the Mad Stad on Monday in that the Baggies didn’t really start playing until the last half hour and it makes me wonder whether the players are saving themselves for the play-offs knowing that the place in them has been more-or-less secured for the past few weeks.
Millwall’s draw with Stoke City, which finished minutes before the match at the Hawthorns kicked off, meant that the Millers needed at least a point to keep their hopes of avoiding relegation alive but, given the Lions’ superior goal difference, it effectively meant that they needed a win.
In the first half, Rotherham were certainly the more adventurous side but, luckily for Albion, they were very wasteful in front of goal. The hosts’ approach definitely suggested that they were more concerned with what was to come, rather than the match at hand. Only Gayle and Harper looked as if they were really trying to win the game and it showed as, time and again, the visitors found themselves in good positions. Their profligacy is, perhaps, a key reason why the Millers will be playing League One football next season.
Clark Robertson came closest when he struck a post with a powerful header, while a long throw from Will Vaulks was flicked towards his own goal by Kyle Bartley only for Craig Dawson to clear off the line.
Rotherham, who had named only six substitutes after Jerry Yates pulled out of the squad just before kick off due to illness, finally recorded their first effort on target five minutes into the second half and it opened the scoring. It was Robertson, once again, who rose highest above Hegazi to direct Joe Newell’s free-kick over Johnstone and over the line despite Chris Brunt’s best efforts to clear from under the crossbar.
It was no more than the Millers deserved and the response from Albion was anything but immediate. It took the introduction of Matt Phillips with 25 minutes to go spark the hosts into life. Almost immediately after coming on he produced a surging run down the left wing and swung over a dangerous ball that Mason Holgate controlled well before scooping it over the bar when it looked easier to score.
There was suddenly some urgency from the Baggies and they flooded forward and it looked a matter of time until they scored. After a penalty claim for handball was turned down, referee, Robert Jones, saw fit to award one when Dwight Gayle was upended by Anthony Forde. It was JRod’s first penalty since he missed for the first time at Millwall, and it was a consummate finish as he found the top right corner of the net for his 22nd goal of the season.
Just two minutes later, Brunt’s corner was kept alive by Hegazi and as the ball broke lose, Rekeem Harper pounced and swept the ball powerfully into the bottom right corner to put the Baggies ahead. Harper had been unlucky not to open his Albion account at Reading and it was fitting that he scored in this match.
Rotherham were now desperate and threw caution to the wind which made the last ten minutes of the match a fantastic watch. They left huge gaps at the back and twice Albion players were through one-on-one with the goalkeeper. On the first, Matt Phillips broke clear but was put under pressure Richie Towell sprinting back and Phillips tried to dink it near post with his right foot when a left foot strike across the ‘keeper looked the better option, and it went wide. Hal Robson-Kanu, who had come on late for Jay Rodriguez, had an easier chance in stoppage time. He was not under pressure as he ran through in the centre of the pitch but screwed his shot well wide.
Albion were denied a second penalty when Gayle appeared to have been tripped on the edge of the box, and Rotherham almost snatched a point at the death when Ryan Williams’ strike from twenty yards struck the bar.
There is no doubt that the Baggies will need to perform better in the play-offs, but to take the positives from the game, they have shown resilience to come from behind to win in three of their last four home games.
It’s difficult to put a finger on exactly what was wrong in the first half. It was more about the intensity of the performance from the majority of the players rather than any deficiencies in the team selection, formation or tactics. That will obviously be different in the play-offs, and the team looked very dangerous when they did turn it on.
I wonder if the starting eleven against Rotherham is what Shan feels is his best. The one question mark may be between Johansen and Phillips, but I do wonder whether Matty is best used as an option off the bench. Harper put in a second excellent performance against Rotherham – he was the one player that was really showing some drive in the middle of the park. However, his lack of experience does mean that he is prone to defensive lapses which is why I don’t think you can play him with Brunt and Phillips in a midfield three – you need Johansen’s bite, nous and legs against the better teams.
Michael Appleton will undoubtedly have a view when he joins the coaching staff on Monday. I think his appointment is a positive one, albeit a little late in the day, but he can certainly have an impact in the closing weeks of the season.
Albion did what they needed to, and got the three points to keep Villa behind them irrespective of their result today against Leeds, but the intensity will need to take a massive step up if and when, as expected, the Baggies take them on in a fortnight’s time.