Rotherham United 3 Oxford United 1: Millers’ power and devilment rewarded again

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HEADING into last night’s action, the fact that Rotherham United’s points tally over their previous ten league matches had eclipsed that of all-conquering team of the moment Manchester City told you everything you needed to know.

This statistic was, perhaps, the ultimate indicator of the Millers’ current sense of well-being and magnificent winter reawakening, with a ninth win in 12 unbeaten outings registered last night as the hosts’ inexorable League One rise continued.

Anthony Forde is congratulated by team-mates after opening the scoring for Rotherham United against Oxford United last night (Picture: Bruce Rollinson).

Anthony Forde is congratulated by team-mates after opening the scoring for Rotherham United against Oxford United last night (Picture: Bruce Rollinson).

The start of Lent may indicate a time for abstinence, but the last thing that anyone should expect is for Rotherham to give up their promotion aspirations.

This latest victory over Oxford is likely to represent a particularly cathartic moment too for manager Paul Warne, whose side’s outstanding 2018 continued apace.

As the Millers struggled for answers in a soul-destroying and desperate 2016-17 campaign, one of the most humiliating blows arrived last January when the U’s, a division below the hosts, knocked them out of the FA Cup during a cringeworthy defeat that Warne rightly labelled as “embarrassing”.

Where there was once pain, there is now a Millers love-in among their enchanted fanbase. Well, it is Valentine’s Day, after all.

Speaking of history, a fifth successive triumph arrived on a night when the hosts exhibited the sort of imposing qualities that were the hallmark of successful Millers’ promotion vintages of yore.

Matching those feats may still be a fair way off, but on this evidence the high-octane Millers, blessed with options from the bench, will not be going away as they moved back into the top four for the first time since mid-October.

A workaholic on-pitch presence in Ronnie Moore’s feted class of the early Noughties, Warne is creating a side very much in that image, a team who pressurise opponents incessantly and possess power and devilment in the final third.

Relentless for spells, with confidence coursing through their veins, Rotherham showcased just why they are one of the form sides in the country as they bullied Oxford for significant periods.

It was to the U’s credit that they regrouped admirably in the final period of the half to pull one back just before the break with a well-taken strike from James Henry, a strike that set up a fascinating second half.

But their meaningful fight and resistance ended with a killer third seven minutes after the break from Michael Smith, adding to first-half strikes from the outstanding Anthony Forde and Richie Towell.

In-your-face dominance in the opening half-hour yielded two goals against an Oxford side who were afforded little respite.

It would have brought another, but for a quite magnificent save from goalkeeper Simon Eastwood. The Yorkshireman, in his 100th game for the U’s, showed just why he was coveted by Barnsley in the transfer window by filing a contender for save of the season with a quite incredibl; one-handed reaction save to turn Smith’s point-blank header onto a post.

That prevented the Millers from doubling their advantage following a cracking early opener from distance from the rejuvenated Forde, but the respite was relatively brief.

The insatiable hosts, shortly after Joe Newell spurned a decent chance, added a second with Towell on cue to tuck away the rebound after Newell’s effort was parried by Eastwood.

Creditably, the U’s regrouped and after Marek Rodak did well to divert Isaac Buckley-Ricketts’s angled shot, they pulled one back when a tidy move ended with a fine rising shot from Henry.

Oxford survived a late penalty scare when David Ball went down under pressure in an all-action half, which was as engrossing as the reverse fixture which ended 3-3, with five goals arriving in the first period.

For all their adept play on the break, the U’s problems were at the other end and they were ruthlessly exposed early in the second half.

Josh Ruffels was denied by Rodak and, soon after, the Millers made it 3-1 when fine wing play from Forde was finished off from close range by Smith for his third goal in four matches.

The goal ended Oxford’s meaningful fight and resistance with Newell going close to a fourth, and substitute Caolan Lavery was inches away from scoring with his first touch.

An acrobatic tip-over from Rodak thwarted Ryan Ledson late on before the Millers could reflect on another evening of significance.

Rotherham United: Rodak; Emmanuel; Wood, Ajayi, Mattock (Ihiekwe 38); Forde, Towell, Vaulks, Newell (Taylor 80); Ball (Lavery 72), Smith. Unused substitutes: Price, Palmer, Yates, Williams.

Oxford United: Eastwood; Kane, Dickie, Mousinho, Smith-Brown; Ledson, Ruffels; Henry, Buckley-Ricketts (Napa 64), Rothwell (Ricardinho 74); Thomas (Mehmeti 60). Unused substitutes: Shearer, Martin, Mowatt, Carroll.

Referee: E Ilderton (Tyne and Wear).