North End return to Deepdale within 72 hours of the defeat to Reading, and will be hoping the demons from that game can be exorcised when Middlesbrough make the cross-country trip.

We find ourselves in the midst of a frustrating situation in which 9 points were available, from which we probably aimed for 4. We arguably deserved 6 and yet came away with only 2. A perfect example perhaps, of how there are absolutely no ‘banker’ results in the Championship.

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Also perhaps, this short run of games has served as a reminder, and a timely one at that, of a lack of a reliable goalscorer up-front for the Lilywhites. The one thing we lacked in all 3 of our recent games has been a goalscorer to put chances away and seal the points we could so easily have had. With January around the corner, now might be as good a time as any for that reminder to come.

This could easily sound like sour grapes to those who don’t follow North End, and I really don’t wish to come across that way given that we have scored an impressive amount of goals this season.

Yet the point remains that with a 15-20 goal a season striker, we would be more the finished article as a side than we are.

North End’s first visitors of 2020 will be Middlesbrough, who have been in resurgent form recently. 3 consecutive wins against Stoke, Huddersfield and league leaders West Brom have propelled Jonathan Woodgate’s side away from the relegation zone, with which they had previously been flirting.

This is going to be, without doubt, a tough game for Alex Neil and after Reading, you would imagine there will be changes to the 11 that take the field.

Potential Dangers

Middlesbrough have talent across their entire XI, so much so that their meagre position in the lower portion of midtable does little by way of justice for the quality in their squad.

Ashley Fletcher has hit form in recent weeks, scoring 2 in their current winning run and combining brilliantly with Djed Spence for the winner against Huddersfield on Boxing Day.

The former West Ham forward is finally starting to add regular goals to his game and is mixing this new-found scoring form to his familiar strong, pacey and bustling game which will certainly make him a handful for the North End defence.

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Fletcher’s 2 goals over the festive period have taken his total in all competitions for the season to 6, making him Boro’s joint top scorer and, while this may not be a huge total for a forward at this point of the campaign, 4 of his 5 league goals have come since mid-November.

Fletcher’s form has flourished somewhat during a spell Boro really needed as the next danger I will identify has been injured of late.

Britt Assombalonga is the man sharing the top goalscorer accolade with Fletcher as of this moment, with 6 for the campaign, all 6 of those coming prior to his injury in their visit to Charlton.

Assombalonga is a player who seems to habitually find the net against Preston, indeed it was he who has also laid claim to Boro’s equaliser in the reverse fixture between our two sides earlier this season, although by most accounts it was a Darnell Fisher own goal.

Nonetheless, should he make a return on New Years’ Day, as Woodgate has been monitoring his return from injury closely and told reporters that the Congolese frontman had been in training prior to their Boxing Day fixture, he will no doubt be a thorn in the side of the North End backline.

Speaking of pace that North End have struggled with, my third pick for potential danger in the Middlesbrough side is that of Marcus Tavernier.

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The threat Marcus Tavernier poses should be one the Lilywhites’ backline are more than wary of. The wide player’s pace and direct attitude have given PNE some torrid times in recent meetings between the two sides.

One of note is in the reverse fixture earlier this season when Tavernier’s darting run in behind the defence and low ball across goal forced Boro’s leveller that day.

Fans with a decent memory should also be able to recall Tavernier burning Paul Huntington for pace numerous times including for an equalising goal at Deepdale last year, as well as a long-range goal in the Carabao Cup. The lad has form in PR1.

Opposition View

This opposition view comes to you from our friends over at Boro Breakdown, a podcast all about, unsurprisingly, Middlesbrough.

You can check the gang out on their social media platforms – Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

After 3 wins on the spin, it looks like Boro have arrived in the 19/20 season. The season so far hasn’t been great but things are starting to look up.

Since Boro have reverted to a three at the back system and introduced academy boys Djed Spence and Hayden Coulson for width Boro have become more balanced and starting to look like an effective team again.

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Before the 3 wins on the spin, Boro’s start was a disaster. We couldn’t defend to save our lives and couldn’t score either. The signings of Marcus Browne, Anfernee Dijksteel and Marc Bola have been underwhelming, to say the least. But credit to Jonathan Woodgate, Boro’s young guns have turned it around and hopefully, we can keep the momentum in the New Year.

As for expectations, this season didn’t really have any. We’ve seen some big earners go and they’ve been replaced by academy players. However, the academy boys are now starting to step up.

The likes of Aynsley Pears (Son of former Man U, Liverpool and Boro goalkeeper Stephen), Marcus Tavernier, Djed Spence and Hayden Coulson have been superb so far and we can build a team around them.

If we can finish midtable this season, get some experience to help them grow, this team could be something great. To have an owner and manager from Middlesbrough and 6 academy players in the starting 11 including Lewis Wing and Dael Fry it could be the identity Boro fans have been crying out for over the last few seasons.

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In an ideal world, Boro will keep the same 11 that won away to WBA. Boro changed system again to match WBA in a 4-2-3-1 and it was the best we’ve played all season. We were absolutely brilliant and Ashley Fletcher’s screamer was the icing on the cake.

However, I wouldn’t be surprised if Paddy McNair came back into the team following his suspension and Woodgate may opt to bring in Marvin Johnson on the flank to rest some of his players after a busy period.

Boro’s XI: Pears; Howson, Ayala, Fry, Coulson; Clayton, Saville; Spence, Wing, Tavernier; Fletcher.

If we play like we did against WBA then anything could happen. I’m hoping we keep this run of form going and get a 1-2 win.

Predictions

With events in recent weeks having begun to negatively affect the mood around some sections of the Deepdale faithful, it’s important for fans to stay grounded and have realistic expectations from certain games and of course, this season as a whole.

The Reading game was poor, both in terms of performance and the result of course, but most will hopefully acknowledge that Alex Neil getting a game as tactically wrong as he did that day is a rare event.

Middlesbrough are in good form and pose a significant attacking threat to North End. So, like many games of late, my prediction will be based on hopes for injuries not taking too much of a toll on the starting line-up.

Darnell Fisher returned from suspension to make the bench against Reading and hopefully, Patrick Bauer might have fought off the illness that has kept him sidelined since Christmas. David Nugent also missed the Reading game with a knock but is expected to be back in contention for the Boro game.

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My prediction for North End’s first result of 2020 is Preston North End 2-2 Middlesbrough.

I think Alex Neil might ring some changes to try to rediscover the attacking impetus that has been missing in recent weeks.

The gaffer has never been one to shy away from acknowledging that he got it wrong, so I don’t think pride will come into his selection and we might see a return to the side for players who have found themselves forgone recently.

We have mentioned a couple of times in recent pieces that Maguire is in quite visible need of a bit of a rest, and this is something I think Neil might have picked up on after his frustrating showing against Reading. This is something I think might trigger another change.

My predicted lineup is as follows;

Rudd; Fisher, Bauer, Davies, Hughes; Pearson, Gallagher; Barkhuizen, Browne, Bodin; Stockley.

Finally, if you haven’t yet listened to part 2 of our chat with Graham Alexander on From the Finney Meets… why not?! Hit play below and give it a go.