Preston North End’s impressive away form, which includes points gained at Norwich and Brentford, continued at the John Smith’s Stadium and ended an encouraging unbeaten few weeks for Town.
Robust, well organised and cynical, the visitors were everything they were expected to be and despite being outplayed for the first quarter of the game, their tried and tested methods eventually overcame the emerging Corberán style, which was too often exposed and particularly in the middle of the park where O’Brien’s rustiness and lack of game time combined with Bacuna’s carelessness rather handed the initiative to the Lancastrians.
Despite the defeat, which was fully deserved, and the rather obvious conclusion that the quality in the squad remains far too thin, if the lessons from the game are learned the trajectory continues to be positive and to be still in contention for a point with 10 men deep in to injury time was commendable.
The 24 hour advantage Town had over their opponents following the midweek round of matches looked decisive in an opening 10 minutes of total dominance, and the lead taken was just reward.
Mbenza won an aerial duel with 2 Preston players and as the ball fell kindly to O’Brien, the returning midfielder played in Campbell with an instinctive and perfectly weighted pass.
Holding off a challenge with good strength, the striker followed up his £5,000 donation to Stephen Chicken’s appeal with a strike past the otherwise impressive Rudd and Town appeared to be in a very good place.
Minutes later, Campbell should perhaps have doubled his tally when he connected with a Toffolo cross but his overly deft attempt to steer the ball in to the far corner let the visitors off the hook. It was a lifeline they were to take for most of the rest of the half as they imposed their physicality and began to dominate.
Town’s midfield diminished alarmingly with only Hogg holding things together as O’Brien’s long lay off began to show and Bacuna’s inability to add discipline to his undoubted talent came once again to the fore.
Preston’s best chance fell to Sinclair who took advantage of Stearman’s failure to heed the age old advice not to let the ball bounce, but the veteran fired wide when he should really have levelled the scores.
Sarr made an excellent block when the visitors looked certain to score and the home side we’re looking increasingly ragged in the face of the controlled aggression overwhelming attempts to inject flow in to their game.
A decent effort from the impressive Pipa was all that Town had to show as their performance deteriorated, but the visitors were grateful for an inexperienced referee’s failure to dismiss Potts for a high challenge on Campbell. Though subsequent replays cast some doubt on the level of punishment appropriate for the lunge, the naked eye, upon which the referee had to rely, more than suggested that dismissal was justified.
The referee compounded his error in the second half with unpunished challenges leading to both goals in Preston’s devastating start to the second half. However, it would be mealy mouthed to blame the visitors for his failings; unlike Hogg, who stopped with his hand in the air claiming offside rather than attempting to block a cross, they played to the whistle and got their rewards.
The equaliser was very well taken by Browne who took advantage of defensive hesitancy to curl a shot which gave Hamer no chance.
The keeper, despite a good performance, needs to take his share of the blame with Sarr for Browne’s second just a minute later. A far post cross didn’t look particularly threatening until they collided and rendered Hamer’s punch weak, falling very nicely for Browne who, nevertheless, had to adjust to finish.
The Lilywhites’ ascendancy of the first half translated in to a lead which they rarely looked like relinquishing and, indeed, continued to be the more dangerous, though the final stages saw something of a renaissance by the home side reduced to ten men when Sarr capped an uncertain afternoon grappling the impressive Riis Jakobsen to the ground with nothing behind him other than another Preston player.
By this point, Corberán had abandoned 3 at the back with Schindler withdrawn along with O’Brien for Diakhaby and Eiting. The changes added some urgency to the home side’s play but not enough threat.
Counter intuitively, Sarr’s dismissal heralded the best patch of play since the opening 15 minutes, though Preston were, by this time, comfortable with their lead, comfortable out of possession and dangerous on the break.
Bacuna came in to the game late and was incensed to be dragged back by Bauer when he had broken through Preston’s lines. The German was roundly congratulated for his cynicism; in fairness, Schindler was also booked for a similar transgression, though his team mates didn’t share the joy.
A late Pipa effort following an excellent move which finally carved open the visitors hit the outside of the post and those Championship fine margins reared their head yet again. The impressive Spaniard, who could be one of the finds of the season, had also brought a decent save out of Rudd earlier and the keeper finger tipped a Koroma effort round the post to deny the substitute a second in 2 games.
Preston could easily have added to their lead but for some last ditch defending and one or two decent saves by Hamer and the last action of an entertaining game saw Jakobsen hit the bar after bamboozling Town’s exhausted defenders.
This defeat could easily have happened in games we have drawn or won. Had Forest not been thwarted by that Hamer save, had Swansea not been so profligate, or Rotherham not succumb to something of a fluke, our position would be substantially worse. Which is to say, most Championship games are close, attritional affairs and being on the right side of moments essential.
Yesterday, Preston’s established style, professionalism and strength overcame a still developing Huddersfield Town and they deserved their 3 points. Time will tell if they can translate their status as perennial dark horses in to a promotion which would complete the list of former League winners experiencing the dubious delights of the Premier League.
For their part, Town showed that Corberán’s project has a long way to go but it will be far more interesting and entertaining than grinding out draws to keep our heads above the relegation waters. Frustrating as it is that the squad is too thin to meet all the demands of 3 games in a week, and oh! how we could do with a centre forward presence like Riis Jakobsen, a mid table finish is well within reach.
On to Brum.