Preston kept hold of the final playoff place on Wednesday night, beating Stoke City 2-0 at the bet365 Stadium.
North End were looking for a fourth win in five, and they got it with a battling performance, which was somewhat unconvincing in patches, but the points are all that matter right now.
A couple of scrappy goals were enough for the win, as Alan Browne smashed home a loose ball from close range, before Tom Barkhuizen repeated the trick to send Preston back to Lancashire with three points.
Here are five key talking points from the game as North End cut the gap to the automatic promotion spots to just three points…
Ben Davies is so, so good
We already knew Ben Davies was an outstanding defender, but he enjoyed a particularly fantastic performance last night. Usually praised for pace, composure, reading of the game and ability on the ball, Davies showed off a different side of his game on Wednesday. He showed off his aerial ability on a number of occasions, he put his head in where it hurts, he made clearance after clearance, and produced inch-perfect timing on his tackles, particularly late in the game. Add in winning key headers in the two goals, and it was some night for Davies.
David Nugent makes a big impact
This wasn’t vintage North End, with Seani Maguire and Scott Sinclair a little ineffective going forward. On 56 minutes, Alex Neil made a change, bringing on veteran striker David Nugent for Maguire. At 34, Nugent can’t be relied upon to start regularly, and he’s only scored once this season, but this was a showcase of what he can still do. Nugent held the ball up brilliantly, providing exactly what we needed as he relieved the pressure on the Preston defence, his link-up play was superb and he worked hard pressuring the Stoke back line. Nugent has been in many playoff campaigns, and having a player of his experience and mentality could be crucial, even if he’s only used in 30-minute bursts.
Tom Barkhuizen deserves more praise
Barkhuizen was on the scoresheet once again, firing home from close range to seal the 2-0 win. The rapid attacker had a quiet spell in front of goal, going from late October until mid-January without finding the net, but he is back in red-hot form again. With last night’s goal, Barkhuizen has now contributed four goals and one assist in the last four games, and he was the only one of the starting front line to cause problems, using his pace to open up the Stoke defence. He maybe hasn’t received the praise he deserves for his displays of late, so here it is; right now, he’s the Preston attacker we can rely on.
The away form is returning at the perfect time
Much has been made of Preston’s away record this season. We used to be so strong on the road and patchy at home, but earlier this season, that flipped; we were dominant at Deepdale, and shaky away from home. Now though, North End have won three away games on the bounce, scoring seven goals and conceding just once. Even picking up the odd point here and there would be important at this stage of the season, but these wins are coming at the perfect time – and hopefully, it can continue for some time yet.
North End have come a long, long way in seven years
On February 13th 2013, Preston sacked Graham Westley following a 3-1 defeat at Yeovil Town. North End sat just five points clear of the League One relegation zone, and had won just twice in 17 games. Relegation to League Two was suddenly a fear, Westley had completely lost the fanbase, and the atmosphere was becoming completely toxic.
On February 13th 2020, Preston fans will wake up just three points off the automatic promotion places in the Championship. Fans are dreaming of promotion to the Premier League, something that seemed so far away when Westley was sacked. Peter Ridsdale, Alex Neil and even Simon Grayson deserve great credit for building this Preston side, who are enabling us to dream.