North End welcome promotion favourites Sheffield United to Deepdale on Saturday for what will be the toughest test of the season so far.
The Lilywhites have started the season strongly, although United boast an impressive record in their last three games at Deepdale and positive recent league results should give them confidence.
Both sides are tipped for promotion this season and in order to achieve that goal you have to be able to beat the best, so perhaps this early-in-the-season game could be important in determining who clinches promotion at the end of the campaign.
An excellent result in the Cup at West Ham on Tuesday night followed back-to-back league wins for the Blades and therefore they come to Deepdale on a high.
Only one clean sheet in 14 games – including pre-season – defies their run of impregnability at the end of last season, but the loss of Harry Maguire and John Brayford during the summer goes some way to explaining that.
PNE boss Simon Grayson needs to wait to check on the availability of a number of his squad. Bailey Wright and Chris Humphrey both missed Tuesday’s trip to Middlesbrough, whilst skipper John Welsh was forced off during the second half.
Kyel Reid and Lee Holmes are both still absent as well, meaning there could be opportunities for first league starts of the season in a number of positions at the weekend.
Summer signing and former Walsall skipper Andy Butler and forward Chris Porter have both been absent for the last two games, but manager Nigel Clough has said that a defender and a forward are his priorities in the loan market, meaning both out of favour players are unlikely to get a recall at the weekend.
Jose Baxter is expected to play off the front man again for the Blades after their impressive penalty victory at Upton Park on Tuesday night.
Last Sheffield United line-up (versus West Ham United, 26/08/14)
: (4-4-1-1) - Howard; Alcock, McGahey, Collins, Harris; Davies, Basham, Doyle, Flynn; Baxter; McNulty. Subs: McEveley for Harris, 73; Campbell-Ryce for Flynn, 84; Wallace for Baxter, 100.
What The Managers SaySimon Grayson
: “On paper this is one of the biggest games of the season, but you don’t get any extra points for beating Sheffield United!
“It is two big teams going head to head. They are favourites at the bookies for promotion and we are close behind them.
“Nigel has done a fantastic job since he has been there; turned the football club around and it is a big game. If we can replicate the same performance we had against them in front of the Sky cameras then we have a great chance.”
(speaking exclusively to The One And Only): “[Tuesday] was a good result, but hopefully we’re not too tired for the game against Preston with it going to extra-time, because it’ll be one of our toughest games of the season when we come to Deepdale.
“Last time we were there, Preston had the majority of the possession, but we were solid and made it difficult for them and that’s what we were based on at the end of last season and I hope we can do the same thing on Saturday, and I think we’d settle for a similar result.
“Losing John Brayford and Harry Maguire has left us without two very good players from last season from the back four that performed so well at the back end of that campaign. We’re still trying to fill those gaps now, but we’ve kept one clean sheet in 14 games including pre-season so I don’t think we’re quite as solid as we were at the back end of last season and you’re not going to be with those two players missing.”
From The Archives
Back in April 2003 Dickson Etuhu and Eddie Lewis scored as North End defeated Sheffield United at Deepdale.
The result meant that United had not won at Preston since 1955 and were yet to secure their place in the Play-Offs.
Neil Warnock's team dominated large chunks of the fixture, but Craig Brown's side, with just one win in their last five games, made the crucial breakthrough after 60 minutes and scored close to full-time as they avenged the defeat at Bramall Lane earlier in the season.
North End almost got off to a brilliant start, but Pawel Abbott's right-foot shot in the second minute was brilliantly saved by Paddy Kenny.
Marcel Cas then shot wide and veteran striker Wayne Allison had a header saved by Jonathan Gould as the Blades bounced back.
North End striker Richard Cresswell limped off after 36 minutes and was replaced by Simon Lynch.
Michael Brown forced a save from Jonathan Gould early in the second half and then full back Rob Kozluk had a shot blocked.
United continued to create the chances before Etuhu met Graham Alexander's corner to head home from six yards and give the home team the lead.
Owen Morrison replaced Cas with 17 minutes remaining and the substitute lashed a shot over the top as his side searched for an equaliser.
Lewis and Etuhu both went close for the home side before Tonge forced Gould into a fantastic save and Brown curled a free-kick over the crossbar.
But American international Lewis made the game safe when he converted Etuhu's cross from the right to seal the points.
: Gould, Alexander, Lucketti, Jackson, Mears, Skora, Etuhu, O'Neil, Lewis, Abbott, Cresswell. Subs: McKenna, Bailey, Lynch, Cartwright, Lucas.
Sheff Utd line-up
: Kenny, Curtis, Jagielka, Murphy, Kozluk, Tonge, Brown, Montgomery, Kabba, Allison, Cas. Subs: Windass, Peschisolido, Morrison, Asaba, Cryan.
: Mr P Prosser (Gloucestershire)
The Match Official
Taking charge of Saturday’s fixture is second year match official Seb Stockbridge
. In his maiden year on the list the Tyne official took charge of 24 games, cautioning 83 players and sending off seven, including Sam Mantom at Deepdale in the Lilywhites’ 2-1 win over Walsall in March.
This is his fourth game of the season so far; all of which have been played in Lancashire! He oversaw Blackburn’s League Cup defeat to Scunthorpe, before taking charge of Morecambe’s 3-2 home win over Newport and then last Saturday he had the whistle for Accrington’s 2-2 home draw with recently promoted Luton Town.
In those three fixtures he has so far issued six cautions, with no red cards and at the weekend he will be assisted on the line by Nick Gibbons and Glen Hart, with Karl Evans in the dug outs as fourth official.
Tickets are on sale from the ticket office at Deepdale until 5pm on Thursday, 9am to 6pm Friday and from 9am until kick-off on matchday – during those opening hours you can also purchase via the ticket hotline 0844 856 1966.
If you want to buy online and collect at the collections window – to the left of the Sir Tom Finney ticket office – you can do 24/7 until midnight on Friday, just go to www.mypne.com.
We hope to see you at Deepdale; but if you can’t get to the game then we will have full and uninterrupted live match commentary from the gantry on the Invincibles Pavilion.
Anthony Wareing will be in the hotseat from 2.30pm with all the build-up ahead of kick-off, where he will be joined by a co-commentator from 3pm with all the action.
We’ll also have all our usual coverage on social media, plus reaction and highlights on PNE Player after the game.
Click here to watch Simon Grayson’s preview of the clash with the BladesClick here for the thoughts on Alan Browne on the Roses battle on PNE PlayerBetting
Sheffield United 3/1
Josh Brownhill to score at anytime 9/2
PNE to win 1-0 5/1
Click here to have a bet on the game