Mind the gap, Millers' march and big decisions - Ipswich v Rotherham
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Ipswich Town host Rotherham United in a League One clash this afternoon. STUART WATSON previews the action.
TEST OF CHARACTER
Missed chances, followed by late sucker punches. Saturday’s 2-0 loss at out-of-form Sunderland was frustrating in the extreme, but there’s simply no time for anyone to be feeling for themselves.
Rotherham are a wily, athletic, in-form side that are very comfortable in their own skin. They thrashed Sunderland 5-1 just a few weeks ago. They know what it takes to get promoted from this division.
Town need to roll up their sleeves and put on their big boy pants tonight. This will be a major test of character.
MIND THE GAP
Yes, there’s still a long, long way to go. But every point left out there – and Town can reflect on several of those – then has to be made up further down the line.
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Saturday’s set-back means the gap to the play-off places has widened to seven points. You don’t want it growing much more than that.
Town have got a hill to climb as it stands. They could do without it becoming a mountain.
Five more matches and we’ll be at the halfway point.
Following long trips to Oldham and Sunderland, the Blues now have four successive matches on Suffolk soil.
After tonight it’s rock-bottom Crewe on Sunday. Then comes cup ties against Arsenal U21s (Papa John’s Trophy) and Barrow (FA Cup).
There’s no doubting that Paul Cook’s men need to improve their home form if this season is to truly ignite.
Recent stalemates against Oldham, Colchester and Oxford United sees the record across all competitions at Portman Road this season stand at: P13 W3 D7 L3.
The success of the ‘Pack Out Portman Road’ campaign means the stadium is going to be close to capacity for the festive matches against Sunderland, Wycombe and Lincoln.
It’s vital that the team doesn’t let too much of the off-field feelgood factor dissipate before then.
Rotherham have bounced back to the Championship at the first time of asking twice in recent years. There’s every chance they could do it again.
Paul Warne’s men currently sit second in the League One table. They come into this match on a 14-game unbeaten streak (W10 D4).
After his side were beaten 3-1 by the Millers on Saturday, Cambridge United boss Mark Bonner said: “We have come up against a team who are outstanding and way above the level athletically of anyone we have played this season.
“They are a powerful, aggressive, hard-running, relentless and ruthless team. I would be amazed if they don't get promoted. It would be a good side who finished above them.”
It was a case of ‘welcome to League One’ for Ipswich Town when they faced Rotherham back in 2019/20.
At both Portman Road (2-0 loss) and the New York Stadium (1-0 loss), the Blues were out-fought and out-thought.
Many of that Millers side remain.
Richard Wood and Michael Ihiekwe remain part of a physical defence, Dan Barlaser is still pulling the strings from deep, midfield dynamo Ben Wiles is now a better player at 22, Chiedozie Ogbene continues to speed up the line, while 6ft 3in striker Michael Smith (13 goals already this season) persists up top. The latter is available again tonight after serving a one-game ban.
Physical attacking midfielder Matt Crooks has moved on, of course, Ipswich losing out to Championship club Middlesbrough following a well-publicised summer pursuit of the 27-year-old.
Newer faces at the South Yorkshire club include young defender Rarmani Edmonds-Green (on loan from Huddersfield), experienced left-sided specialist Shane Ferguson (picked up on a free from Millwall), midfielder Ollie Rathbone (signed from Rochdale) and striker Will Grigg (on loan from Sunderland).
Rathbone, in particular, has proved an astute addition.
Rotherham will come into this game with an element of trepidation too.
Ipswich have still only lost just three of their last 16 games. They are a team who have scored four goals at both Portsmouth and Wycombe. They do love playing under the lights.
"I've always liked Cooky and the way his teams play," said Warne. "He's nearly always 4-2-3-1. He had a bit of a sticky start. A new team took time to gel. I think they are gelling now and I wish I'd played them a few weeks ago.
"They create chances and keep the ball really well. It's a game we want to go and try to win so we'll pick an aggressive team. It will be a big ask.
"I still think that if you finish above Ipswich you will take one of the automatic spots. I'm expecting a really hard game. They've got some very good players and we're going to have to work really hard to try to stop them."
Cook has some big decisions to make with his team selection.
Will he be tempted to bring Cameron Burgess into the defence to deal with Rotherham’s aerial threat? Will he persist with the inexperienced Bailey Clements at left-back?
How much will the attack be freshened up? Conor Chaplin and Scott Fraser will be feeling they deserve a chance given Kyle Edwards and Bersant Celina haven’t really delivered since that 4-1 win at Wycombe six games ago.
Could this be the game to give Joe Pigott some proper minutes? If not from the start, then at least as a sub earlier than the 81st minute. Maybe, just maybe, we see him and Macauley Bonne on the pitch together at some point? They certainly have the potential to be a real handful together.
Sadly, it looks unlikely that Wes Burns will return to action given Cook said on Saturday that the winger will be out for a ‘short period’ due a hamstring issue.
It’s a slight concern that Ipswich haven’t been defending set-pieces particularly well of late.
Oldham scored from one and threatened from plenty of others last Tuesday, while Sunderland’s crucial opener came after Christian Walton got stuck in traffic at a corner.
Town will need to keep the foul count down to a minimum. More than a third of Rotherham's goals this season have come from dead ball situations.
The Millers aren't without weaknesses themselves.
"They caused us problems with their counter-attacking," said boss Warne, following his team's win against Cambridge. "Every time we attacked they seemed to break. They put us under pressure.
"I think our back three won us the game. They put in some good headers in the six-yard box when the balls were coming in."
Town certainly have the players capable of landing counter-punches.