Preston North End will be hoping to pick up there first 3 points of the season away from Deepdale on Saturday when they travel to St Andrew’s to face Birmingham City. Following the international break, the Lilywhites returned to action with 3 points following a resounding 2-0 win at home to Brentford and a further 3 points here against Pep Clotet’s Birmingham would further cement Preston’s early-season playoff placing.
The corresponding fixture last season isn’t one that will live long in the memories of North End fans after we fell to a 3-0 loss in December. After a quiet first half the second half was dominated by The Blues scoring all 3 goals after the break. Declan Rudd made an inexcusable error letting a hopeful through ball from Maikel Kieftenbeld from around 45 yards slip through his legs. This was followed with goals from Jacques Maghoma and now Premier League striker Che Adams who ended a then 9 game unbeaten run.
Alex Neil’s side have not been beaten in 4 league games since losing 3-2 away to Swansea in August. Preston beat Brentford with goals from Sean Maguire and Tom Barkizhuen on Saturday after both players were initially injury doubts for the encounter. This was the first game back from the international break before which Preston picked up their first away point of the season at Nottingham Forest. Hopefully the first of many.
Preston are currently 5th in the table and it has certainly been an encouraging start to the season especially at home where we look clinical, much unlike last season. If we can now take this home form into our away form you would like to think it would bode well for rest of the season.
Both sides have enjoyed a similar encouraging start to the season, Birmingham currently sit in 8th place only behind Preston on goal difference, at the moment. This maybe surprising after a summer of unrest which saw Garry Monk leave the midlands club replaced to be replaced by a ‘caretaker’ head coach Pep Clotet after he had been Monk’s assistant last season. They also lost key men Che Adams and Jota to the Premier League sides Southampton and Aston Villa respectively.
Birmingham come into the game 2 unbeaten having won away at previously unbeaten Charlton Athletic and beating an out of sorts Stoke City 2-1 at St Andrew’s with teenage sensation Jude Bellingham scoring in both of those games. They have an identical record to Preston on their 13 points winning 4 drawing 1 and losing 2.
The Blues are unbeaten at home having beaten the aforementioned Stoke and Barnsley and drawing to Bristol City. You can be certain that they will provide a stern test to Alex Neil’s side and it looks like it’s set up to be a tight encounter.
Birmingham have had a high turnover of players ever since Harry Redknapp took the reigns and left following defeat to North End, and this summer was no different. There was no less than 10 players arriving at the club as Pep Clotet looked to make his mark on the squad.
I would pinpoint 3 players as dangers to North End. The first of which is the formerly mentioned Jude Bellingham. The 16-year-old has certainly burst onto the scene scoring the winning goals in both their previous games.
The England youth international has only played 4 games of senior football but certainly has raw ability and pace. He is now Birmingham’s youngest ever scorer having bagged at just 16 years and 63 days. Bellingham is a Birmingham fan and described scoring his first goal ‘as something I’ve dreamed of since I was a boy’.
The next danger to Preston is certainly more experienced in the form of striker Lukas Jutkiewicz. He has already scored 3 goals this season and scored 14 last season in the most prolific season of his career so far.
He has been in the Championship most of his career with spells at Coventry, Middlesbrough, Bolton and Burnley. In his time playing for Burnley, he didn’t manage a goal in 35 appearances, but he looks to be coming into his peak now. Leading the line for Birmingham, he even managed to set up 10 goals last season being in double figures for goals and assists.
The 30-year-old has been at St Andrews for 4 seasons now and has been at the forefront of their attack for most of them having racked up over 100 appearances. He is a different threat to Bellingham with him being more of a target man and a danger in the air and a battle to watch will be him up against Patrick Bauer.
The final player I have pinpointed is midfielder Ivan Sunjic his move was defiantly one that caught the eye spending with Brum spending £7.2 million on the Croatian central midfielder. He is seen as more of a defensive midfielder and his strengths seem to be breaking up play and winning the ball back in the centre of the park.
Sunjic captained Croatia in the Under 21 European Championships during the summer including a 3-3 draw v England. He has also made his senior debut against Mexico showing his is highly rated by the World Cup finalists.
At £7.2 million, you could say that big things are expected of him and he has played in every league game so far playing 90 minutes in each one of those apart from his debut where he played almost 20 minutes on the first day of the season. It will be interesting to see how he gets on against arguably Preston’s strongest area, the centre of midfield.
Season to Date
On paper, it’s been a positive start for us with 13 points from our first eight – as many as West Brom and yourselves, who are currently in the top six.
It was especially important for Pep Clotet to oversee some wins early on because there are one or two question marks about him as a number one dating back to an underwhelming stint as a head coach at Oxford – and he is only ‘Interim’ Head Coach here.
Clotet is still learning the ropes in management terms and it is good that he has this opportunity to settle into the job without any undue pressure.
Expectation vs. Reality
Clotet’s plan is to try to evolve our style of play; last year, we were all about long balls from deep, high pressing and quick transitions in the opposing half.
As a Catalonian, Clotet believes in the value of playing out from the back and that was something we were hoping to see more of this year. So far though, it has not really materialized – apart from the first half of the 1-1 draw with Bristol City.
Our wins have been a fortuitous smash-and-grab at Brentford – Kristian Pedersen scored a header from outside the box in that one – a counter-attacking job at home to Barnsley, then we’ve managed to shade an even game with Stoke and won 1-0 at Charlton with 39% possession.
Clotet may have been reluctant to change too much too soon, which was the mistake Gianfranco Zola made in his time here. That’s completely understandable and while we’re getting good results, it’s difficult to argue with how Pep has gone about things.
Jude Bellingham is certainly the hero of the hour; the 16-year-old broke Trevor Francis’ long-standing record of being our youngest ever goalscorer in the 2-1 win against Stoke, then bagged again at Charlton. Bellingham isn’t the quickest but his movement and quality is outstanding for his age.
It must be an incredibly proud time for him and his family – I just hope the kid has the maturity to deal with the attention that will inevitably come his way.
Harlee Dean is a very committed defender, popular with fans – and of course, Lukas Jutkiewicz always poses a threat with his aerial prowess and hold-up play.
(4-2-3-1) Camp; Colin, Roberts, Dean, Pedersen; Sunjic, Davis; Crowley, Mrabti, Bellingham; Jutkiewicz.
I’d be surprised if Pep makes any unforced changes to last week’s starting XI. I’d expect us to use Crowley and Colin combining down the right quite a lot; Kerim Mrabti will stretch play in behind and then Jutkiewicz will try to occupy defenders with Bellingham coming in from the left to act as a second striker in the final third.
Without the ball, I’d imagine we’ll be looking at congesting our left side of the field and leaving our right side relatively open, as it doesn’t look like you’ve got any quick, left-footed players.
If Barkhuizen starts up top for your lot, presumably a lot will depend on whether you’re able to win the ball high up as I always feel he’s a 9/10 in transition but maybe more of a 5/10 in slower-paced situations. I do wonder from the outside if the absence of a striker with a wider range of qualities like Jordan Hugill could be a problem in terms of your Play-Off push – but all credit to you for the start.
As for a score prediction, I’ll plump for a 2-1 Blues with Juke and Jude scoring in the first half.
I know North Enders aren’t mad on Jayden Stockley but I still feel from the bench, if you get the right service into him, he can cause problems with his aerial prowess and potentially make it an awkward second half for us if we’re ahead. All of our wins so far barring the Barnsley game have come by one goal so I’m not expecting us to win comfortably. Good luck for the rest of the season!
In terms of the starting 11 prediction I cannot see many if any of the players who played in the Senior Cup tie against Chorley on Thursday being included in the final XI. It will also be interesting to see if the big League Cup tie with Manchester City affects Neil’s selection although I think he will prioritise doing well in the league over any sort of cup run.
XI Prediction- Rudd; Fisher, Bauer, Davies, Rafferty; Pearson, Gallagher, Johnson; Potts, Maguire, Barkhuizen.
Score Prediction I will go for 1-1. I reckon it will be a tight game with both sides starting the season well I can see the points being shared.
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