MATCH REPORT: Crouch punishes Preston… Again.

Preston were pegged back twice by the Potters in an enthralling, end-to-end Championship fixture at Deepdale.

The Lilywhites stunned the travelling Stokies into silence on two occasions, however, the Potters showed the power of persistence as they hit back through Pieters and Crouch to ensure that they didn’t go back down the M6 empty handed.

These two historic clubs are certainly no strangers, Saturday’s clash being the 102nd competitive bout between the two sides separated by just 68 miles of tarmac. They’ve had plenty of compelling matches in the past and therefore history would not be wrong in suggesting that this game would produce yet another feisty thriller.

It was a high-tempo affair from the onset, as the two sides went toe-to-toe in front of just shy of 14,000 at Deepdale… And a few thousand more watching through the lens in this televised Sky fixture. Deepdale was a bear pit of noise and anticipation as both sets of supporters geed on their players on what was a tepid evening in central Lancashire. Stoke desperate to register a first win back in the Championship, whilst Preston hoped to build on their successful midweek Cup exploits.

In the opening forays, both North End and Stoke made diligent use of the ball and this would only set the tone for the remaining 90 minutes. The game set off at a blistering pace, loanee Lukas Nmecha guiding a header into the grateful grasp of England stopper Jack Butland, whilst at the other end of the pitch, Butland’s counterpart Declan Rudd superbly blocked Berahino’s near post header at point-blank range. Berahino having got the better of Ben Davies in the box with some slick movement off the ball.

Considering Stoke’s summer spending, Preston arguably edged the action-packed start. A category of half chances littered the first 30 minutes until the deadlock was finally broken in the latter stages. A blatant handball in the box gave Yorkshireman Andy Madley no other option than to point to the spot.

Up stepped veteran midfielder Paul Gallagher, with the golden opportunity to put one past his former employers. Gallagher went through his usual, unorthodox routine before blasting the spot kick well beyond the grasp of Butland and into the roof of the net. It’s fair to say that no keeper would’ve stopped that one, not even Stuckmann.

However, Preston’s lead was shrouded in controversy, Gallagher having escaped punishment earlier on for striking the “Welsh Xavi” in the neck with an elbow. Looking back, Gallagher definitely got the ball first…

However, justice was served in eyes of the Stoke faithful a mere two minutes later. A cross for the right flank made its way over to an unmarked Erik Pieters, who viciously arrowed the ball home from just inside the box. Stoke’s Premier League quality well and truly shining through. Considering that was only Pieters second goal in five years, it was a sumptuous finish from the German left-back.

Frustratingly, it looked like we would be trudging off into the concourse all square… Although Shamrock star Graham Burke had other ideas. Paul Gallagher drifted a teasing ball into the box which caused Stoke all sorts of problems. The Potters failed to clear their lines, allowing CR7 to fortuitously slice a volley across the box to Graham Burke, who found himself in acres of space. Burke struck the ball first time, sending it past Butland and into the empty net. A deserved goal for Burke who was persistently looking to create opportunities down the right flank. That half of football was a real spectacle.

The second half certainly didn’t start with the same urgency and attacking potency from PNE and large portions of the final 45 were tainted by some poor officiating from Mr. Madley, who prevented Preston from gaining any real momentum. Both sides snatched at a couple of half-chances until the pendulum eventually began to swing in Stoke’s favour.

Rowett made two switches on the hour mark, as Peter Crouch graced the turf to haunt Deepdale once again… Anyone remember that cold Wednesday night in 2009? And no sooner had he laced up his size 20 boots, Crouch instantly found himself the hero for the Potters, netting his 200th career goal.

The “Welsh Xavi” fizzed in a tantalising freekick from the left which struck the biggest target in Preston on the back of the head, leaving Rudd rooted to the spot. Crouch wheeled away in celebration leaving Preston to ponder over how they had managed to surrender a second one goal advantage. Ben Davies was the only player in a white shirt marking Crouch and he had no chance of shackling the big man. In reality, Huntington would’ve been our best option in that situation, but the Cumbrian Cannavaro could only watch on from the sidelines. Frustrating would be an understatement.

Stoke were in the ascendancy for a matter of moments, before they battened down the hatches and setup for the point. Perhaps teams are finally beginning to give us the respect we deserve after an impressive season last time out. Alex Neil made a couple of changes himself as he attempted to invigorate his side for one final rally and it so nearly paid dividends.

Hughes headed just over the bar before Gallagher fizzed a first-time effort inches wide from the edge of the box; he’s scored plenty from that range. Preston piled on the pressure, but failed to deliver the knock-out blow.

It was difficult not to feel hard done by, but this is simply testament to the progress made and the high expectations laid out by Alex Neil. We are fighting for promotion on merit and whilst a point against a team who have just spent a decade in the top flight may seem like a gratifying result, we have the capabilities to beat any team in this Division and should be aiming for the upper echelons of the table.

In terms of stand-out performers, our anchor in midfield Ben Pearson was sublime once again and well worthy of his MOTM accolade. Pearson’s work rate is something I imagine really appeals to Neil in the system we play. Pearson provides crucial support for the sturdy base at the back and his tenacity ensures that he can cover any forays forward made by either Fisher or Hughes. He always ensures that he imposes himself on the game with both his passing ability and strong tackles and he is always looking to shackle anyone he comes up against. If Pearson had to, I’m sure he’d be more than willing to two-foot his own Nan…

Staying with the midfield duo, Paul Gallagher showed once again that he is well worth the new one-year deal. He kept up with the pace of the game, got us on the attack with his passing range and even bagged himself a goal, albeit from the penalty spot. He’s our Rolls-Royce in the middle and a key component in our youthful squad.

Onto Wednesday next, as we take on Alex Neil’s former employers Norwich at Carrow Road.

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