Preston North End manager Alex Neil is expecting a tough game when Jonathan Woodgate’s Middlesbrough arrive at Deepdale to start the new decade on Wednesday afternoon.
The Lilywhites gaffer was impressed by their result on Sunday, ending West Bromwich Albion’s unbeaten home record, and he feels it will be a difficult game, as was the match at the Riverside in October.
“They have got a good squad that has been challenging at the top of the table for the last few seasons,” said Alex. “This year has been a transitional year for them, in that they have had to bring the budget down and started introducing some younger players and when that happens it can be difficult to get results when all of that is happening, but of late they have picked up and the last result – beating West Brom at The Hawthorns – is a great result for them.
“The first game was a really tough one and I don’t expect this one to be any different.
“The younger players will have the benefit of having a number of games under their belt, but the problem you do get, is that form can be sporadic. With younger players, one week they can be excellent and the next they a dip and that is the same with every young player.
“They will be looking for that consistency from them, that is really difficult to get, because they are not experienced enough to find the solutions that are needed week in, week out in terms of the challenges you face in the Championship.
“But I am sure Jonathan will be really pleased with them; that last result for them was a shock, but that is just this league – on their day, anyone can beat anyone else and that was a prime example.”
Their recent run of form has also been without talismanic striker Britt Assombalonga, something the gaffer feels may have galvanised them further.
“Sometimes being without a key player can help,” he continued. “Everyone else will look around at each other and thinks ‘we need to double down and put extra work in’ if they are missing someone, to make up from the short fall they are not there.
“When you have got young boys and you have them organised and working hard, you can do a lot with work-rate, effort and organisation.”
In terms of his own team, he hopes that former Boro man David Nugent and defender Patrick Bauer could be back amongst the options and is looking forward to hopefully having a fully fit squad in the near future.
“We will take into account the ground we have covered and how fatigues we are, but we need to try and focus on winning this game.
“We have options, but it will be good when we get everyone back. It seems to be one in and one out at the moment, but once we get them all back and are at full strength, it will certainly help us,” he added.