RAFA Benitez’s Newcastle United survived a Millers scare as Christian Atsu’s first-half strike proved the difference between the sides at a sold-out AESSEAL New York Stadium.
In a highly-charged atmosphere, Atsu struck just before the interval to give the Geordies' a half-time advantage and Benitez’s men held onto it despite a late Rotherham rally, which saw Dominic Ball plant a header against the upright and Will Vaulks have an effort cleared from the visitors’ line.
Following their narrow defeat at the hands of table-topping Huddersfield Town in midweek, Millers’ chief Alan Stubbs had initially intended to keep faith with his starting line-up in West Yorkshire for the visit of the Magpies.
However, left-back Joe Mattock took a knock in the warm-up and Halford was an 11th hour replacement in the defensive ranks with Darnell Fisher switching flanks to the left-hand side as Halford was asked to fill the right-back slot.
The Millers were quick out of the blocks and following Dael Fry’s free-kick, Newcastle were slow to clear the danger and Danny Ward struck an effort which was blocked by Ciaran Clark en-route to goal.
At the other end, Yoan Gouffran cut inside with menace from the flank to strike an effort which was blocked before his follow-up strike was straight down the throat of Lee Camp before Dwight Gayle almost latched onto an arrowed ball forward but he was unable to bring the ball under his spell as the chance was lost.
The home fans were off their seats when Fisher sped down the left-flank before being nudged over by Vurnon Anita in the box but the referee waved away home protests before superb interplay involving Jon Taylor and Izzy Brown near the touchline saw the former advance into a shooting position but his weak effort was blocked by the ruck of bodies on the edge of the box.
The Millers had a let off when Atsu got the better of Joe Newell to deliver
a tantalising centre to the far post which fell invitingly for the run of Gouffran, who calmly stroked the ball towards goal and although Camp was beaten, Dominic Ball was on-hand to clear the danger from his own line before Gouffran was snuffed out by a timely tackle by Halford from the rebound.
The home side were giving as good as they got and Newell’s dipping effort from distance forced Karl Darlow into a superb tip-over before Brown’s superb pass gave Taylor, a glimpse of goal, and the diminutive winger got the ball out of his feet to strike a fantastic effort from just outside the box which struck the Newcastle crossbar, with the ball either getting a slight deflection of Paul Dummett or from the fingertips of Darlow in the visitors goal.
Moments later, Halford’s snap shot from a home corner was blocked by Dummett before fine approach play presented the opportunity for Tom Adeyemi to try his luck from distance but his long-range effort flew narrowly wide of the target.
In an enthralling opening half-hour, Jonjo Shelvey curled an inviting centre which saw Mohamed Diame rise highest to plant a header wide of the Millers goal before Fisher had to be on his toes to head clear following Atsu’s darting run and cross across goal.
Skipper Lee Frecklington became the first to see yellow as he nudged over Atsu as he looked to launch a visitors’ counter-attack before Newcastle broke the deadlock just four minutes before the interval.
Following a Millers attack, the home side vainly appealed for a free-kick as Frecklington appeared to be nudged off the ball but nothing was given and the visitors countered with purpose.
Gouffran raced away before cutting inside and following interplay involving Shelvey, the ball was played into the path of Atsu, on the edge of the box, who cleverly worked a yard of space on Fisher, before curling a delightful effort which arrowed into the far corner of the Millers net giving Camp no chance.
Half-time- Rotherham United 0 Newcastle United 1
Following the break, the visitors had the first sight of goal when Atsu’s deft flick paved the way for Gouffran to strike from the edge of the box but Ball threw his body infront of the shot, as it deflected harmlessly over the bar.
Moments later, Brown tripped Jack Colback in an inviting position and Shelvey delivered a mouth watering free-kick which Gayle looked to turn goalwards with an outstretched leg but his effort failed to trouble the home goal.
At the other end, Newell planted an inswinging corner into the Newcastle goalmouth which saw Dael Fry nod goalwards forcing Dummett into hacking the ball clear from danger before the Millers had Camp to thank for keeping them in the game.
Following a lightning counter-attack, Diame raced clear from halfway before threading a ball through into the path of Atsu, who got a yard of space on Ball, to fire an effort which was arrowing into the bottom corner but Camp showed superb reflexes to punch the ball to safety.
Just before the hour mark, Ward was the latest to see yellow for a show of dissent following a free-kick award before Newcastle came close to doubling their advantage when Anita sneaked behind the Rotherham defence before pulling the ball back into the path of Diame, who looked a certain scorer but Fry came out of nowhere to block his goalbound effort.
Minutes later, Shelvey took aim from long distance but despite his effort flying through the ruck of bodies, Camp managed to tip the ball around the post before the home ‘keeper was called into action from the resultant corner when Clark met sub Matt Ritchie’s corner but this time, he calmly plucked the ball out of the air.
Moments later, Gouffran’s effort from long range was deflected narrowly wide of the target before Clark ghosted in unnoticed from Shelvey’s resultant corner but the ex-Villa defender failed to trouble the home goal despite having the goal at his mercy.
With time running out for the hosts, Diame incurred the wrath of the referee as he earned a caution for a nasty tackle on Vaulks before Darlow was forced to punch Brown’s corner to safety.
Minutes later, the Newcastle ‘keeper was again called into action when Frecklington’s pass saw Halford embark on a mazy run from the flank which saw the utility player ghost into the box to drill a low effort which he had to palm to safety.
From the resultant corner, the Millers came within the width of a post of an equaliser when Brown floated a delicate centre which saw Ball emerge from a ruck of bodies to plant a point-blank header which smashed against the post.
The Millers were building up a head of steam and Halford’s ball into the box saw Vaulks nod goalwards but a well-stationed Toon defender blasted the ball clear from his own line.
The visitors weathered the home storm and successfully ran down the clock to leave Stubbs’ men empty-handed despite an impressive showing.
Full-time:- Rotherham United 0 Newcastle United 1
Rotherham United 0
Newcastle United 1
Teams:- Rotherham- Camp, Halford, Frecklington, Ward, Taylor, Ball, Fisher, Fry, Newell (Blackstock 73), Adeyemi (Vaulks 26), Brown. Unused- Price, Forde, Forster-Caskey, Wilson, Wood
Newcastle- Darlow, Clark, Dummett, Colback, Lascelles, Anita, Gayle (Mitrovic 79), Shelvey, Diame (Hanley 87), Gouffran, Atsu (Ritchie 66). Unused- Sels, Hayden, Mbemba, Yedlin.
Referee:- R East
Attendance:- 11653 (2587)