DESPITE a much-improved second half performance from the Millers, Stewart Downing’s first-half strike condemned Rotherham United to a narrow defeat at the hands of promotion chasing Middlesbrough.
Aitor Karanka’s men took the game by the scruff of the neck when Downing struck following a fine run and shot and the home side were unlucky not to have increased their lead before the break.
However, the Millers gradually asserted their foothold in the clash and sub Jordan Bowery squandered their best chance of a share of the spoils when he shot wide after pouncing on a home defensive error.
Following their defeat at the hands of Derby County at the weekend, Millers chief Neil Redfearn made five changes to his starting line-up for their third ever visit to the Riverside Stadium.
Derby loanee Farrend Rawson returned at the heart of the Millers rearguard after he was ineligible to face his former club as Kirk Broadfoot dropped to the bench while Frazer Richardson returned to come face to face with his former employers as Lewis Buxton made way.
The Millers had a new look midfield as Paul Green was rewarded for his substitute cameo at the iPro Stadium with a starting berth in the north east while French playmaker Tony Andreu was handed a place at the tip of the Millers diamond with Tom Thorpe given an opportunity in the engine room behind him.
Despite a promising start from the Millers, the home side had the first sight of goal when Jonson Clarke-Harris was stripped of possession and with ex-Millers loanee Grant Leadbitter leading the cavalry charge, both David Nugent and Downing were crowded out on the edge of the box by retreating visiting defenders before they could get their shots away.
Minutes later, George Friend advanced menacingly down the left flank before drilling a low centre which saw Albert Adomah work a yard of space on Green at the far post before firing a daisycutter which was smartly smothered by Lee Camp.
In ‘Boro’s next attack, Carlos De Pena had a glimpse of goal but Richardson put his body on the line to block his goalbound effort before Friend and Nugent fired cross-cum-shots which had to be diverted to safety by some last-ditch visiting defending.
The home side were finally rewarded for their early pressure when they broke the deadlock on 16 minutes thanks to a fine solo run and strike from England international Downing.
The Millers were the architect of their own downfall when Grant Ward’s errant pass was latched upon by Downing, who showed the visiting defence a clean pair of heels as he raced into the Millers box and with Rawson unable to get in a tackle, the ex-West Ham winger showed his class when he drilled a low left-footed effort which beat the outstretched hand of Camp as it nestled into the bottom corner of the net.
The home side had a spring in their step and they came within a coat of paint of doubling their lead minutes later when a threaded ball released Nugent, who clipped a delicate cross to the far post which was inch-perfect for the run of De Pena, who planted a header which smashed against the crossbar before falling to safety.
The Millers had their first shot in anger when interplay involving both Danny and Grant Ward paved the way for Andreu, to try his luck from distance but his effort dribbled harmlessly wide of the target.
Downing was the Millers’ main tormentor-in-chief and his defence splitting pass released De Pena, whose point-blank shot was superbly saved by Camp but any goal would have been chalked off for offside.
Just before the half-hour mark, Rawson towered above a ruck of bodies to meet Andreu’s floated free-kick but his header failed to trouble Dimi Konstantopoulos and the Norwich loanee was in the thick of the action moments later when he ran with purpose before spooning a long-range effort which harmlessly cleared the home crossbar.
The Millers had their hearts in their mouths when Nugent’s pass saw Friend skip past Grant Ward with ease to play a tantalising ball across the face of goal and with one retreating defender swiping unsuccessfully to clear the danger, Adomah had an opportunity to strike goalwards at the far post but he fluffed his lines when he skied his effort harmlessly over.
The visitors were riding their luck and Adomah’s clipped ball saw De Pena volley over when he should have done better before Danny Collins was well-stationed to hack clear Friend’s dangerous cross in the next phase of play.
With half-time approaching, Adomah exchanged passes with Nugent on the edge of the box before curling a delightful effort which sailed narrowly over the visitors crossbar before Danny Ward, who had been seemingly suffering with a recurrence of a back spasm he sustained against Brentford, screwed a half-volley wide from an acute angle.
In the last play of the half, Rotherham had their best moment when fine interplay put ‘Boro on the backfoot and Green worked a yard of space before striking a rasping effort from distance which stung the palms of Konstantopoulos.
Half-time:- Middlesbrough 1 Rotherham United 0
The Millers were quick out of the blocks in the second half and Andreu’s low corner caught the home side napping and Rawson had a chance to divert the ball goalwards but he failed to make a clean connection before Andreu screwed an effort harmlessly wide of the target under pressure from Fernando Amorebieta.
Thorpe became the first to see yellow for a late lunge on Friend before Clarke-Harris came within a whisker of meeting Danny Ward’s flick-on from Camp’s punt forward but Konstantopoulos was on his toes to snuff out the danger.
The home side were struggling to recreate their first-half rhythm until Adomah’s clipped cross was well met by Downing at the far stick who acrobatically put the ball back into the danger area whereby De Pena headed narrowly over.
Redfearn reshuffled his pack as Clarke-Harris was withdrawn with Danny Ward asked to lead the line as Andreu was pushed forward in the number ten position and the move seemed to pay dividends with the Millers having their best spell of possession with the home side starved of the ball with the home crowd getting increasingly frustrated.
Sub Bruno Zuculini broke the shackles when he burst from halfway to drill a shot which was deflected behind before Nugent superbly took Adomah’s inside pass into his stride before scooping a shot over the bar.
Jordan Bowery was introduced to lead the Rotherham line as the Millers looked for a way back into the clash but ‘Boro had the next sight of goal when Joe Newell’s pass was intercepted by Leadbitter and after exchanging passes with Emilio Nsue, the home midfielder headed straight into the grateful hands of Camp.
With time running out for the visitors, Bowery caught Fernando Amorebieta dallying in possession and stripped him of possession to advance with purpose to the home goal but after striding away from the target, he screwed his shot narrowly wide of the target when he should have done better.
As the Millers threw caution to the wind, the home side had opportunities to seal the deal when both Nugent and Friend fired wide from promising positions before sub Diego Fabbrini and Downing screwed shots wide when they had the goal at their mercy.
Full-time:- Middlesbrough 1 Rotherham United 0
Teams- Middlebrough- Konstantopoulos, Friend, Amorebieta, Leadbitter (Fabbrini 79), Clayton, De Pena (Zuculini 65), Downing, Nsue, Kalas, Adomah, Nugent. Unused- Mejias, Ayala, Gibson, Kike, Stephens.
Rotherham- Camp, Collins, D Ward (Bowery 73), Green, Richardson, G Ward, Clarke-Harris (Newell 63), Rawson, Thorpe, Andreu (Maguire 86), Toffolo. Unused- Collin, Buxton, Broadfoot, Smallwood
Referee- P. Tierney
Attendance- 21,144 (271)