Preston North End complete another midweek to Saturday turnaround when they take on Birmingham City at Deepdale this weekend.
With it comes an opportunity to break their duck in terms of home wins for the season, with North End having suffered their fourth home defeat in four on Wednesday night against Millwall. That home form is a concern at the moment, however, the strong displays away from home – where we sit top of the division on form – shows that it is an issue that can be rectified if every aspect of the performance comes together.
North End’s next test is against a Birmingham City side who have spent well this summer and have a solid defensive record so far under new manager Aitor Karanka.
Karanka is a known quantity in the second tier, having pushed Middlesbrough from mid-table to eventual promotion in his time there, as well as a solid spell at Nottingham Forest where he couldn’t quite repeat the trick.
The Blues haven’t pushed on as of yet this term, drawing four of their opening eight games and only scoring more than one in a game for the first time against Huddersfield on Tuesday.
That could explain their rumoured pursuit of Brazil international Alexandre Pato, who would certainly be an interesting proposition at Championship level if a deal was to happen.
Whilst the goals haven’t been flowing for the Blues this season, they are yet to concede more than one goal in a Championship game.
That is partially down to right-back Maxime Colin, who joined the club in 2017 when Harry Redknapp was in charge at St. Andrews. The Frenchman has started every game in league and cup for the Blues and combines solid defensive work with an ability to get forward and threaten the opposition box.
He created 40 chances last season in the Championship, the fifth-highest of any defender, and has made some important blocks and interceptions this campaign.
One of Karanka’s first signings as Birmingham manager, Spanish winger Ivan Sanchez has really caught the eye so far in the Midlands. Like Colin, the 28-year-old has featured in every league game for the Blues, having joined from Spanish club Elche in the summer.
Sanchez is yet to get on the scoresheet so far, but has a burst of pace, is good on the ball and has created plenty of chances.
Another player to watch out for is forward Lukas Jutkiewicz.
The 31-year-old has been a regular fixture in the Birmingham XI for several years, and has scored 14 and 15 goals respectively in the last two seasons.
Known for his strength and hold-up play, Jutkiewicz is also a mobile forward and causes problems for any team he plays against.
He has scored just the once so far this season, in Tuesday’s 2-1 victory over Huddersfield, although the striker missed the majority of pre-season through injury and has featured intermittently for the Blues so far this campaign.
For this opposition view, we have Gabriel Sutton who is a Birmingham City fan, EFL pundit and freelance writer. You can find him on Twitter here – @_footballab. Here are his thoughts on Birmingham so far this season…
It’s been a solid start to the season for Blues. We leaked goals too easily after the re-start and were carved open at will, which is something Karanka has put right straight away – all of our defensive performances so far have been good.
George Friend, who helped Karanka win promotion with Middlesbrough in 2015-16 when they conceded just 31 goals, has made a huge impact on the defence with his organisational qualities – he carries the ball out from the back pretty well too.
Clayton, also part of that Boro side, has helped us tighten things up in a similar way; the distances between units are always on point.
In fact, we’ve recruited well generally. We debate Hogan’s displays so far up top but I think he’s better with a strike partner; otherwise, there hasn’t been a signing so far that hasn’t significantly enhanced our squad.
Ivan Sanchez, a left-footed attacking player, brings plenty of guile, Jonathan Leko adds pace and goalkeeper Neil Etheridge has won promotion from this level with Cardiff.
Our use of the ball left some room for improvement but, since cultured midfielder Mikel San Jose came into the XI, we’ve controlled games a bit more with positive displays against QPR and Huddersfield.
We’ve got a lot more intelligence in our side this season to compliment the tenacious Ivan Sunjic in midfield and the aggressive Harley Dean in defence. Finally, good luck to North End!
Predicted XI (4-4-2): Etheridge; Colin, Roberts, Dean, Friend; Sanchez, San Jose, Sunjic, Bela; Leko, Jutkiewicz.
North End struggled to create clear-cut chances against a well-drilled Millwall outfit on Wednesday night, and that may come into Alex Neil’s thinking when he picks an XI for Saturday.
With that same team having put in good displays at both QPR and Huddersfield, however, I wouldn’t expect there to be sweeping changes made, although rotation may be needed with the games seemingly coming thick and fast at the moment.
Tom Barkhuizen could return to the side, potentially in place of Brad Potts, whilst there could be a doubt over Patrick Bauer after Neil reported that he was “violently sick” at half-time on Wednesday, and had to be taken off. Paul Huntington would be the obvious replacement, although Ben Davies could slot back in if he is passed fit.
Presuming Bauer is available to play, my XI would therefore be as follows: Rudd; Rafferty, Bauer, Storey, Hughes; Ledson, Browne; Barkhuizen, Johnson, Sinclair; Riis.
In terms of the result, this is surely going to be a tight game with Birmingham having been tough to break down so far this season. It’s the sort of game where the first goal could decide the outcome, and I’m going to predict that PNE get it and record a 1-0 victory.
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