With nine games to go, Preston are – somehow – still in the final Championship playoff spot.

Yes, it’s been a great season so far, but North End have now lost four of the last five games. Saturday’s defeat at home to QPR was embarrassing; from 1-0 up to 1-1 after a clunky formation change, to 3-1 down against 10 men.

Somehow, the clubs behind Preston haven’t managed to leapfrog North End. Nobody seems to want sixth place this season, meaning it’s still in Preston’s hands – and Alex Neil faces some big lineup decisions between now and the end of the season.

Bright Osayi-Samuel of Queens Park Rangers battles with Preston’s Andrew Hughes. (Photo by Lewis Storey/Getty Images)

Hughes or Rafferty at left back?

Andrew Hughes is Neil’s preferred left back, and for good reason. He played the majority of last season there, his height is a major factor in a fairly small Preston side, and he supports the attack well on the overlap, freeing up space inside. However, he struggled defensively against Queens Park Rangers on Saturday, and the calls for Joe Rafferty to play will be loud. Rafferty fared well at left back in the first half of the season, but hasn’t started a game or kicked a ball since the 1st of February. Rafferty is a solid, honest player who gives everything for North End, but him being right-footed limits Preston going forward. He’s always checking back onto his stronger right foot, meaning he doesn’t offer the same overlap possibilities as Hughes. We’d guess that Hughes will remain in the spot, but more struggles may cause Neil to look at Rafferty again.

Who fills in for Pearson?

Ben Pearson’s absence is a huge blow for North End, as seen against QPR; we just didn’t have the same control of the midfield when the going got tough. It’s hard to fill in for a player of Pearson’s quality, as he’s arguably the finest holding midfielder in the Championship alongside Kalvin Phillips, but Preston need to find a way. Alan Browne has been called upon to play in Pearson’s role, but that limits his ability going forward. Paul Gallagher doesn’t quite had the same physicality and aggression, whilst Ryan Ledson has yet to really show that he can be trusted in that role – both in terms of his passing and his discipline. Preston need to figure out their plan to get by without Pearson, or more debacles like Saturday will occur.

Preston North End’s Scott Sinclair. (Photo by Mick Walker – CameraSport via Getty Images)

When does Scott Sinclair start again?

Preston’s big January signing hasn’t quite lived up to the hype yet. Scott Sinclair joined from Celtic, and was Preston’s only addition in the window, suggesting North End saw him at the big difference between challenging the top six and actually finishing inside it. However, Sinclair has managed just one goal so far, and has been stuck on the bench for the last three games now. Josh Harrop didn’t impress on the left against QPR, meaning Sinclair may be in line to play against Luton Town, but whilst his fitness is being built up, Neil and co must find a way to get Sinclair firing and making the impact we expected.

A striker Neil can trust

The big conundrum comes up front. North End just aren’t scoring enough goals. Jayden Stockley has managed just two goals this season, David Nugent just one, and Seani Maguire has only one goal in his last 29 games for Preston. Neil appears to trust Maguire to work hard and press from the front, at least more so than Stockley, who seems limited to a super-sub role. Nugent is somewhere in-between, but offers next to no goal threat at this stage in his career. With just one goal from open play in the last five outings, North End need to find a formula that works in the final third – or they’ll lose that playoff spot.

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