Town Out to Inflict Rare Defeat on Play-Off-Chasing Preston
Friday, 23rd Feb 2018 13:12
Town face Preston at Deepdale on Saturday looking to inflict a rare defeat on the Lilywhites, who are very much play-off contenders despite having one of the division’s smallest budgets.
The Lancastrians are currently ninth only three points off the play-offs having lost just once in their last 17 Championship games, a 3-2 home reverse to Middlesbrough on New Year's Day.
Blues boss Mick McCarthy, whose own team appears out of top-six contention in 14th, nine points from the play-off places, says his Preston counterpart Alex Neil has done well since taking charge in July, building on the work done by previous boss Simon Grayson prior to his departure for what turned out to be a brief spell at Sunderland.
“He’s done a really good job having taken over from his predecessor, who left him a club in good shape, I think,” he said.
“Simon didn’t leave because he was struggling and got the sack and had to go somewhere else and [Neil] had to come in and reconstruct a team and change it around.
“He inherited a really solid base and I think he’s added to that and, yes, he’s having a very good season.
“TC was at the game on Tuesday night at Villa [which ended 1-1] and said they were very good and we know it’ll be a tough game.”
McCarthy says there are similarities between the clubs with both among the division's have-nots, although Town's wage bill is likely to be significantly higher than the Lilywhites' while still low in the overall context of the Championship.
“I think so, and they are punching above their weight at the moment," McCarthy said.
“They’ve done very well but, as I said, Simon had done well beforehand and he’s just changed it slightly, he’s brought other players in and definitely, they’re are punching above their weight.”
Town are unbeaten in their last three on the road, a 1-1 draw at Bolton was followed by the 2-0 win at Sunderland and then last week’s 1-1 draw at Norwich, which McCarthy admits didn’t feel particularly like a positive result at the time.
“Yes, felt like a defeat but it was a draw,” he said. “We’ve been alright. Our performances, everybody’s screaming from the rooftops when we played Burton [at home] and we didn’t win, but apart from that I think we’ve been playing well enough.”
McCarthy, whose preferred formation throughout his career has been 4-4-2, has lined his side up in a 4-2-3-1 system for most of this season before switching to 3-5-2 at Norwich and then 4-3-3 against Cardiff in midweek.
“My job is to get results and if I think that 4-4-2 is not going to get one, then it’s pointless me doing it, just being a silly, belligerent old man doing what I want to do and not doing what’s right for the club or for the team,” he reflected.
“So, I very often do it to play a particular set-up, and it’s worked. Thankfully I’m a bit more flexible than just having a belligerent mind thinking this is the way it happens and there’s no Plan B. Well, there’s got to be, because we’re not the best team in the league.”
McCarthy was pleased with the way his system worked on Wednesday even if the Blues ultimately ended up losing 1-0 to Cardiff via Kenneth Zohore’s second-half goal which struck his hand.
“It worked well, it worked very well,” he said. “I know we didn’t score, however, but for a bit of a bonkers decision we wouldn’t have conceded one either.”
Why haven’t Town been as much of a goal threat recently as they were earlier in the season when they were among the division’s top scorers? “I can’t say it’s any one thing. We’ve had attacking teams on the pitch, I’ve tried to pick that sort of a team and play that way.
“I don’t know, maybe it’s that time of the season. There’s times in a season when you concede goals and there are times when you’ll have clean sheets, there’s times when you score goals.
“If I knew the reason for it, I’d be far wealthier than I am because I’d pack it in and write a book.”
Martyn Waghorn, joint-top scorer alongside his former Rangers team-mate Joe Garner on 10, is without a goal in 14 matches and McCarthy says he’ll be desperate for a goal, even if he is still contributing in other ways.
“Waggy’s been different class and his assists from corners and freekicks [have been vital],” he said. “He’s been excellent all season, but he’ll be wanting a goal for himself.”
Bartosz Bialkowski will continue in goal and McCarthy may be tempted to return to his 4-2-3-1 with Preston usually taking the same approach.
If that is the case, Jordan Spence or Dominic Iorfa will be at right-back with Jonas Knudsen on the left with McCarthy having to make a decision on whether Adam Webster or Cameron Carter-Vickers play alongside skipper Luke Chambers at the centre of the defence.
Cole Skuse and Callum Connolly are again likely to be the two deeper midfield players with Bersant Celina, Waghorn and Grant Ward behind former Preston frontman Joe Garner if he is over his knee injury.
If not, Waghorn is likely to move to the lone out-and-out striker’s role with Freddie Sears the third man behind him.
McCarthy has confirmed that with David McGoldrick out injured for the rest of the season and Muzzy Carayol a doubt having been ill, young strikers Aaron Drinan and Ben Morris will both travel and take a place on the bench.
Drinan, a January signing from Waterford, is yet to feature for the Town first team, while Morris’s only senior game for the Blues was the Carabao Cup tie at Crystal Palace in August.
Preston will be without suspended defender Darnell Fisher but midfielder John Welsh is back from a ban.
Tom Clarke, Daniel Johnson and Paul Gallagher all missed the draw at Villa and will be assessed ahead of Saturday’s match.
Winger Tom Barkhuizen is another doubt having been subbed with a knock at Villa Park, while striker Sean Maguire is not yet ready to return from a hamstring problem.
Lilywhites boss Neil says the next few matches will be vital to his team’s top-six push.
"These next four or five fixtures are going to dictate whether we are in with a shout or if we’re just flirting with the play-offs,” he told Preston’s official site.
"The fans are going to have to play their part as much as the players are. We’re just going to try and get together and make a real push and try to get ourselves into those positions, or certainly put ourselves in a good position with the remaining games coming up.”
Neil felt their performance in the 3-0 defeat at Portman Road in November was one of his side’s poorer displays.
"That game in particular we didn’t play anywhere near as well as I think we can,” he added.
“That game, to be honest, it was that long ago, we’ve got more important things that we want the three points for rather than just getting one over Ipswich.
"We want to get ourselves up into the play-off positions, we’ve come through a difficult run of games and we’re hoping now that we can go and get some three points together against our next opponents; that should hopefully set us up.
"It will be a really tough test, Ipswich are a really good side, I thought they were unfortunate in the game that they played Norwich the other day.
"It’s going to be a tough test for us but we want to make sure we play a lot better than we did down there.”
Regarding Blues boss McCarthy, he said: "He’s done it for years. Although we were rivals, I got on pretty well with Mick when I was at Norwich.
“It’d be a tough match, Mick's teams are always the same, they will be fully committed, they’ll be up in your face, they’ll make it difficult.
“We’ve got to more than match that and hope we can play well enough on the day to win the game.”
He added: ”We know this is a great opportunity for us, with 13 games remaining we’re three points outside the play-offs, we’re coming through a really tough run of fixtures and we have some of the bigger teams to play at home. We know that this is an opportunity that doesn’t come around very often.
"I certainly think the club has worked its way to this point over the past five or six years and now we’re the ones tasked with going and trying to take advantage of that.
"Ipswich will be as hard a game as Aston Villa if not harder, for different reasons. So we now it’s going to be a tough match, when you’re at home, when you’re against a team you’re above in the league; the expectations shifts from the fans and from everybody.
"We’ve got to have the mental capacity to cope with that and still go and deliver a good performance and get a result.”
Preston midfielder Ben Pringle, who is currently on loan at Oldham, joined the Lilywhites from Fulham in the summer of 2016 having been on loan with the Blues towards the end of the previous season, scoring two goals in nine starts and one sub appearance.
Blues striker Garner scored 57 goals in 128 starts and 23 sub appearances for Preston between January 2013 and August 2016.
He was a member of the Lilywhites side which won promotion to the Championship via the League One play-offs in 2014/15, a season in which he scored 27 goals.
Preston have just had the better of the Blues historically, winning 13 games (11 in the league) between the sides while Town have been victorious on 12 (11) occasions and 10 (nine) matches have ended in draws.
At Portman Road in November, goals from Waghorn, McGoldrick and Celina saw the Blues to a 3-0 home victory over North End.
Waghorn curled home a freekick in first-half injury time, McGoldrick headed the second four minutes after the break and Celina sealed what in the end was a very comfortable Town victory with a superb strike on 64.
The teams last met at Deepdale in January last year when former PNE striker Jordan Hugill, who was a Town target at the time, netted an 89th minute equaliser as the game ended 1-1, Tom Lawrence having given the visitors a first-half lead with another brilliant strike.
Saturday’s referee is Scott Duncan, who has shown 78 yellow cards and seven red in 28 games so far this season.
Duncan’s last Town match was the 1-0 win at Derby in November in which he booked Chambers, Webster and Flynn Downes as well as three Rams.
Before that he took control of the 1-1 home draw with Brentford in March last year in which he kept his cards in his pocket throughout.
Prior to that Duncan was in charge of the 3-0 away win at Charlton in November 2015 in which he booked two Addicks and no Blues.
The Northumberland-based official, who shares a name with a former Town manager, also took control of the Blues in the 4-1 after-extra-time win at Doncaster in the Capital One Cup in August of the same year in which he booked Myles Kenlock and two home players.
He was also the man in the middle of the 1-1 home draw with Brentford the previous season and the November 2013 1-0 victory over Charlton at The Valley.
Squad from: Bialkowski, M Crowe, Spence, Iorfa, Kenlock, Chambers (c), Knudsen, Carter-Vickers, Webster, Skuse, Connolly, Hyam, Bru, Gleeson, Nydam, Ward, Celina, Carayol, Waghorn, Garner, Sears, Drinan, Morris.
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