Preston North End have the opportunity to turn a good week on the business front into an excellent one on the field on Saturday when they take on Bristol City at Ashton Gate.
Fan morale was boosted significantly on Wednesday evening when PNE broke the news that captain Alan Browne had signed a new three-and-a-half-year contract with the club, taking his time with the club to 10 years should he see the contract out. That was then followed by confirmation on Thursday morning that Doncaster midfielder Ben Whiteman had joined North End for an undisclosed fee.
Supporters will point to the contract situation with the three remaining members of the ‘big four’ – Ben Pearson, Ben Davies and Daniel Johnson – and suggest there is still unfinished business, but it seems as though Ben Davies won’t be signing a new deal and Ben Pearson and Daniel Johnson well, we’ll just have to wait and see with those two. However, this has undoubtedly been a positive week of business for PNE.
Add in the loan signings of Jayson Molumby and Daniel Iversen, who will both surely play important roles from now until the end of the season, and it is clear that the club have concluded some shrewd deals.
Attention now turns to Saturday’s trip to Bristol City, a side that North End defeated in front of the Sky cameras just under a month ago – I can’t remember a time in recent years where, without postponements, North End have played a reverse fixture after such a short period of time.
It goes without saying that PNE will want to put on a better display than the one that saw them knocked out of the FA Cup third round against Wycombe last week.
Alex Neil was without six of his key players on Saturday for various reasons, and the boss has stated this morning that one or two players could be affected by the outcome of the club’s COVID-19 tests that took place earlier this week.
It goes without saying then that there were mitigating factors behind the result, but the performance against Gareth Ainsworth’s side was one that left room for improvement. It will certainly be interesting to see what sort of side is selected on Saturday at Ashton Gate.
Bristol City have been on a poor run recently, having recorded just 10 points from their last 10 league games and their form in the last 6 read won 2 and lost 4, not great. Their good early season form under Dean Holden sees them sit in 10th place, just four points off a play-off spot going into this game. North End sit just a point behind them in 12th position.
One key danger is right-back Jack Hunt. Perhaps known for his attacking ability as much as defensively, Hunt spent large parts of the second half in the reverse fixture at Deepdale in the opposition half, and several of his crosses caused the North End backline problems.
The 30-year-old possesses plenty of pace and has been one of the Robins’ key players this season, even assuming the captaincy when regular skipper Tomas Kalas has been out of action.
If he recovers from a foot injury in time to face North End, he should represent a danger at both ends of the pitch for PNE.
Another player that could potentially cause problems for PNE is striker Chris Martin.
Martin may not quite be the goalscoring force he once was in the Championship, having consistently hit double figures in this division for a number of seasons, but his hold-up play, strength and heading ability still provide defences with plenty of difficulties. The Scot only has two goals to his name this season, but has netted in two of Bristol City’s previous three games, including a 23rd-minute strike in the FA Cup victory over Portsmouth last week.
The third player to watch out for is Senegalese forward Famara Diedhou.
Diedhou is another Bristol City player to struggle to find the net this season, having scored just four in all competitions. Like Martin, though, two of those have come in his last three games. It is set to be the first time North End come up against the 28-year-old this season after he missed the reverse fixture through suspension.
Diedhou has been a vital component of the Robins’ attack since joining from French side Angers in the summer of 2017, netting 38 goals in his three full seasons with the club. He is a threat both with and without the ball, and his heading ability is also strong.
I think North End go into this one as narrow favourites. The Robins have been on an inconsistent run of form lately and have been struck down by injuries to key players, including the influential Callum O’Dowda who had a bright second-half in the reverse fixture at Deepdale.
Some parallels can be drawn with North End, who have missed Ben Pearson and Scott Sinclair in recent weeks, whilst Patrick Bauer and Declan Rudd are set to be out for the rest of the season.
They will hopefully be boosted by the return of Tom Barkhuizen, who could slot back into the XI after a period of self-isolation, although a sole training session this week may not be enough for him to play from the start. Scott Sinclair is also reportedly close to a return.
What we should see is at least two of the new January signings in contention, with Jayson Molumby and Daniel Iversen both in with a good chance of starting. On the topic of Molumby, I thought he was one of the few positives from the Wycombe defeat – if he stays fit, what a signing he could prove to be.
Ben Whiteman could play some part as well, having been made available for the clash subject to governing body ratification, although he hasn’t played since December the 22nd. He was one of 5 players at Doncaster who were required to undertake a period of self-isolation due to COVID-19.
After a strong start to the season on the road, PNE’s away form has dipped slightly in recent weeks, but I’m backing us to get back to winning ways with a 2-0 win.
My predicted XI in a 4-2-3-1 is: Iversen; Fisher, Huntington, Davies, Hughes; Ledson, Molumby; Potts, Browne, Barkhuizen; Maguire. Will Daniel Johnson and Ben Pearson feature in the squad? Let us know on Twitter what your XI prediction is, we’re just @fromthefinney.
If you haven’t listened to the latest episode of the From the Finney podcast, you can find it below.
Finally, here is our latest post about what North End fans can expect to see from Ben Whiteman.