|Pos. 9th (39pts)||WEDNESDAY 1 JANUARY 2020||Pos. 16th (33pts)|
SHOTS (on target)
Davies (62 og)
A trip across the Pennines for Boro after their heroics in Birmingham on Sunday had them facing Preston at Deepdale who like the Baggies had just suffered ignominy at the hands of a lower placed side. Losing 2-0 at home to Reading was definitely not something Alex Neil had planned as he plots to keep Preston in the play-off chase, especially after their credible one-all draw away to Leeds previously. Despite that Reading set back, Preston still had the best home record in the Championship having taken 29 points from their 13 home games and having lost only twice, albeit both coming in December. The last time Boro had lost at Deepdale was back in 1972 so there was the inevitability feel about today’s game.
Ex-Boro Striker David Nugent was rated doubtful after suffering a black eye with impaired vision. Darnell Fisher was available after returning from suspension to make the bench against Reading. Patrick Bauer had been down with the flu bug over Christmas so his fitness would be questionable especially over ninety minutes.
Boro meanwhile would be brimming with confidence and would also be “welcoming” back Browne and McNair after their thoughtless stupidity had for some raised questions about the real motives behind their sending-offs and Christmas suspensions. Their causes weren’t helped after another ex-Boro player Gary O’Neil espoused that he himself had once got himself deliberately carded so he could watch horse racing rather than be selected to play.
The Preston teamsheet revealed five changes after that Reading defeat with Darnell Fisher, Patrick Bauer and David Nugent all starting for the Lilywhites. Boro shuffled their pack too with Coulson and Wing on the bench alongside Paddy McNair and a surprise start for Gestede with Johnson also returning. Still no sign of Assombalonga, Shotton, Randolph or longer-term injury victims Friend and Dijksteel, there was no place for either Browne or Bola in the squad.
Boro started on fire with a Marvin Johnson cross evading Declan Rudd in the Preston goal and Spence nodding it on for someone to slot home but there were no red shirts available. Good solid early intent sending out all the right messages. Both sides looked to be steadily probing in what was a measured approach but it was Boro again who came close with Fletcher but he was adjudged to have fouled in the build-up. There was certainly nothing to suggest that Boro were facing this game with any trepidation of fear. The “free hit” mentality was maybe one explanation but in fairness Boro looked far more measured than that.
It was just short of ten minutes when Preston struck at Boro’s defence with Dani Ayala guilty of an error allowing Fisher in on Pears but the rapidly improving young keeper was more than a match as his confidence and reliability grows from game to game. Despite Boro’s early prowess the game was by no means a spectacle and at times untidy and very messy with neither side really getting a grip and controlling it. For a Boro side visiting the place of the best home Championship record it wasn’t up to them to put on a display to entertain neutrals, that said it was indeed Boro who were creating the better opportunities. It was once again the opponents with the lion’s share of the possession stats but with barely a quarter of an hour gone Fletcher had fed Johnson whose effort went wide and then Gestede and Tav had both come close to breaking the deadlock.
The lumbering injury prone and much derided Benin Striker looked to be hungry to make an impact in what was probably his best opening period in a Boro Shirt. The cynics of course would hold the view that he was now playing for his next contract but whatever the reason he was most certainly making a nuisance of himself.
On twenty minutes it was Fletcher again going close but it was just too tight to get his sights on target. As the game approached 30 minutes Pears had to be alert to save from Hughes but far worse was to follow when Dani Ayala went down and it didn’t look good. Clearly in some distress and discomfort he was helped up to his feet by the physio but struggled to put any weight on his ankle. Paddy McNair warmed up as the forlorn Spanish skipper was not going to be taking any further part. The returning Northern Ireland International slotted into the backline alongside Dael Fry with anxious looks from the Travelling Army, Dani didn’t look in a good way as he made his way off the pitch.
Preston sensed that this could be their moment to take advantage of the uncertainty and disruption in the Boro defence but McNair was steadfast while Fry stepped up to have his best game of the season repelling Gallagher and company on a few occasions to keep the scores level. Boro broke out of defence and won a free kick just over the half way line which McNair took charge off. He delivered an enticing ball into the Preston box which Fry nodded back under pressure from the edge of the six yard box where Saville managed an improvised half hooked challenge in the direction of Gestede who leaned back and hooked it himself overhead and into the net to open his account for the season and do the unthinkable, put Boro one up! Five minutes before half time and who would have put money on Boro going in front with Rudy Gestede scoring?
A minute later and the lively Djed Spence nearly doubled the lead but he just couldn’t get the ball to sit right. Preston raised their game and laid siege to the Boro half in the dying moments of the forty-five and the two added minutes but Ref Brooks’ whistle went to see Boro go down the tunnel with their lead intact and the home fans less than impressed, vociferous in letting their players know their frustrations for the second time in a few days.
Predictably Alex Neil made a change and flu sufferer Bauer was swapped for Huntingdon for the second half. Having already been forced into one substitution Woodgate stuck with those who had provided the slim advantage. Preston were determined to get back into the game and it was vital that Boro kept their shape and discipline, Spence showed he could defend as well as attack, Johnson was showing no nonsense and McNair was proving an able deputy but it was Fry who was marshalling and taking control in a return to the Dael we knew (or at least had hoped) was somewhere hiding within.
Ten minutes into the second half and it was Boro who came closest with Gestede again going close with another header from a well weighted Tav corner. The game was undoubtedly a scrappy affair and Preston had a header of their own sailing across the face of Pears’ net but he was unruffled and confident it was going wide. The game was dour in parts but not without the slick pacy moments of the West Brom match. Boro showed resilience but still retained that threat on the break as Preston struggled to break us down.
A darting run by Tav down the middle took him past three defenders with the ball breaking for Gestede who lashed in a shot only for Rudd to instinctively palm clear. A long goal kick from Pears travelled three-quarters of the length of the Deepdale pitch where it was nodded on by Gestede, out leaping the attentions of the Preston defender for Fletcher to chase and run onto it, harassing Davies forcing him to poke it back to Declan Rudd as Fletch closed him down but instead the panicked pass went past the helpless keeper and into the Preston goal. Two-nil up away from home for the second time in a few days and there was something very surreal but also very strangely convincing that Boro were about to grind out their second away victory of the season despite there being over twenty-five minutes of playing time remaining.
Two minutes after the restart Clayts picked up a yellow as the chance of bringing home all three points was becoming close to reality. Just before Boro’s second goal Browne had left the field for Jayden Stockley to join the fray and put a little more physicality into the Preston attack. Suffice to say yet again it hadn’t gone the way Alex Neil had planned. Just after the Clayts booking, Neil brought off Nugent and put on Josh Harrop to chase the game. A minute later it was Marvin Johnson earning a yellow as Boro looked determined to hold on to what they had deservedly earned.
Seventy minutes in and Coulson replaced Spence to conserve youthful energy levels and Howson had gone close as Boro were still threatening on the break with pace and guile. A mazy dribble by Fletcher with Tav acting as a decoy was headed back into the path of Gestede who lashed a left footed shot just wide. A clever corner routine between McNair and Clayts saw Paddy cut back a shot come cross towards the top left-hand corner of Rudd’s goal but he managed to tip it over the bar. An over-hit Howson cross was fed back in from the left by Tav retrieving the loose ball, met by Gestede rising above the defence to head straight at Rudd who again relied on reactionary instinct to punch clear at close range.
Preston kept testing but never looked like breaking us down and in contrast every time we attacked something happened and, on another day, we could have been four goals to the good. With five minutes of normal time remaining Gallagher sent a ball into the Boro box from a free-kick wide on the right, aimed at sub Stockley who won his duel in the middle of the Boro box but headed over, summing up the plight of Preston all afternoon.
With a minute of the ninety to go Preston had the ball over the line but the flag went up to save the turmoil of a nail biting final few minutes of added time. A minute into added time and Tav came off for Wing to run the clock down. The whistle finally went and Boro recorded a remarkable second straight away win, four wins in a row and impressively another clean sheet. MOM was Gestede who had his first start in however long and rewarded Woodgate’s trust in him by attacking everything thrown at him whilst also being dominant in his own box defending set pieces. Seven points from the play-off places and ten points clear of the relegation spots, are Boro about to make a late surge or will the curse of January come back to haunt us?