Briefed: The international break has given United’s coach time to find out more about Rotherham, his players and the Championship. Phil Hay reports
There are 1,000 miles between Rotherham and Graz and more again to Darko Milanic’s home town in Slovenia.
It was asking much of Leeds United’s head coach to come to England with a working knowledge of South Yorkshire football.
Rotherham United were a blank spot three weeks ago, a club who Milanic had failed to notice. “I have to be honest, I didn’t know so much,” he said. But therein lies the beauty of an international break. “My scouts and myself, we’ve watched their games so we know a lot about them now and we’ll be well prepared. I have full respect for them.”
Among the things Milanic has learned is that the New York Stadium – Rotherham’s new ground and a venue where Leeds have never played before – is sold out tonight. Even without digesting the effusive views of Rotherham’s manager, Steve Evans, about Leeds and their history, he can see that this derby matters.
“Somebody said to me that the stadium is sold out so that means this game is an extremely important one for them,” said Milanic. “But it is also extremely important for us.”
There is local rivalry in the middle of this but by no means the sort of rivalry that Leeds live for. Three games on from his appointment, Milanic is seeking his first win as head coach and the result tonight counts for more than the team he might scalp. The same was true when Sheffield Wednesday came to Elland Road last month.
A 1-1 draw in Milanic’s first Yorkshire derby left him with two points from three matches going into his second. His initial fortnight in the job was a genuine whirlwind but two weeks without a fixture and two weeks in which none of United’s players were dragged abroad on international duty has given him actual, meaningful preparation time.
“It was important for me to spend time with the players, so we know each other better than we did three or four weeks ago,” Milanic said.
“Like I said after the game against Sheffield, the first week here was difficult for the players to regenerate, difficult for the players to be fit and to do training. I need to train with my team.
“We played well in the last game. We were good in defensive play but also in possession. We did a lot of good things and made opportunities to score. The game against Sheffield was a good game for everyone – for me, the players but also for the fans,.
“But football is easy to talk about. We were close to the win against Sheffield, we were close, but tonight we have to be better. We have do more in the good moments like we had against Sheffield. It’s very easy to say that but we have to be concentrated.
“To win for me is like seeing the sun. (Yesterday) the sun was out. I hope it is out today also.”
United’s 1-1 draw with Wednesday was earned late on by Giuseppe Bellusci, an unlikely but flamboyant source of attacking instinct this season, but the scoreline owed more to the performance of visiting goalkeeper Keiren Westwood. Westwood took the man-of-the-match award after standing in United’s way for 79 minutes, producing amongst others an immense one-handed save from Mirco Antenucci.
Rotherham are a different proposition in certain respects. Evans’ squad are energetic and aggressive, built in their manager’s own image, but goals have been scarce in the Championship and their defensive record is ordinary. They lost Luciano Becchio to an injured heel ahead of tonight’s game, ruling out a former Leeds striker who would have been among many friends this evening.
Milanic said his analysis of Rotherham had prepared him for a team who will press his own constantly, use in a direct style and threaten from knockdowns and loose balls.
“They are extremely prepared and hard workers,” Milanic said. “They do a lot of pressing and a lot of simple play – direct to the striker. They are very good at taking the second ball. They can be dangerous from that.
“The Championship is no different to how I thought it would be. I expected this. You cannot compare the Championship with the second divisions in other countries, except maybe the second Bundesliga. The standard of this league is too high and extremely popular.”
Evans said yesterday that he had been looking towards this fixture “since the summer”, calling Leeds the “stand-out giant in the Championship.” Yet for all that, he is not certain about Milanic’s plans for tonight.
“As a manager, when you’re preparing for Leeds United in their current state of affairs you don’t really know who you’ll play against,” Evans said.
“What we do know is that we need to prepare for three or four different options. Does he play the English lads because it’s a derby or bring in the Brazilian kid (Adryan) to make his debut. There’s a whole load of connotations that we’ll only really be aware of an hour or so before kick-off.”
Adryan should be in United’s squad but he might start among the substitutes, judging by Milanic’s admission that the on-loan Flamengo player is not yet up to the full rigours of the Championship. Milanic has no new or hugely significant injury concerns, though Leeds believe that a knee injury suffered by Zan Benedicic – the largely unused Slovenian signed on loan from AC Milan in August – will need surgery. That decision will most likely fall to Milan’s medical staff but Milanic’s control of the squad at Leeds seems to be intact. Amid recent questions about the influence of owner Massimo Cellino on team affairs, Milanic has made a few telling comments. He and Cellino, who is currently in Italy and will miss tonight’s game, have spoken infrequently in the past fortnight, according to Milanic. Though Cellino is keen to see academy manager Neil Redfearn back in the dug-out for first-team matches, Milanic and Redfearn have agreed that his academy workload is heavy enough.
Moreover, Stephen Warnock – a player who Cellino was accused of sidelining – should be in the starting line-up this evening, his first appearance in three games.
“He’s in my plans,” Milanic said. “He was also in my plans against Sheffield and Reading. He played in my first game and tonight he will play.”