I wasn’t alone in having a sense of foreboding ahead of last night’s trip to Deepdale.
It wasn’t so much a case of ‘After the Lord Mayor’s show’, because no-one can ever question the desire of this bunch, but there was a collective sense that the emotionally draining effect of a white hot derby would impact on proceedings in deepest Lancashire.
What we didn’t need were opponents who were intent on going for the jugular from minute one and who had no intention of letting City slip into that pleasing passing rhythm that’s typified almost every awayday this season. Equally, to suffer the same fate that Ipswich did on Sunday, by conceding a goal before the clock had struck two minutes, was most certainly not what Doctor Farke had ordered.
From there it was a tale of two penalties.
Despite being way off their fluent best, there were enough vital signs to suggest City could get a foothold in the game, but courtesy of Emi Buendia’s untimely nudge – Farke called the decision a ‘complete joke’ – the experienced Paul Gallagher, who was in no mood to fall for Tim Krul’s mind games, despatched his spot-kick.
When it was City’s turn – after Onel Hernandez had been upended by Pearson – Marco Stiepermann gave the game away before the ball had been struck with a nervy run-up, and despite a clean strike it was comfortably read and at a comfortable height for Declan Rudd to palm away.
However you dress it up, five penalty misses by four different penalty takers is a terrible record, and while it’s much easier to say than do, it really is something that has to be addressed. Stiepermann, according to Farke, has been scoring them for fun in training and indeed has a wand of a left foot, but as he nervily stood over that ball there were few who expected it to hit the net.
It’s no longer a question of technique, it’s in the head. An odd conundrum for a group that oozes confidence and belief in almost every other aspect of the game. Maybe the nearly fit Mo Leitner will not only add some calm and ballast in the centre of the pitch, but also from twelve yards. Here’s hoping.
The second-half was an improvement on the first, it had to be, and the ball was shifted with more oomph and purpose, but there was also a sense of Preston settling for what they had in the knowledge City would be committing numbers forward and would, therefore, be vulnerable on the break.
Alas, buoyed by his penalty save, Rudd was in no mood to be beaten on his 100th appearance for the Lilywhites and pulled off a string of fine saves, most notably from Ben Godfrey’s close-range header. Farke changed shape and personnel but to no avail and there was an inevitability around Preston grabbing a third on the break – Maguire firing home after Browne’s shot had rattled Krul’s woodwork.
Teemu Pukki’s injury-time strike was a fair reward for City, who knocked on the door for the entire second period, but it was a game lost in those fraught, nervy 24 minutes. As Sky’s red button commentator reminded us, it was difficult, before the break, to tell which side was top and which side was top, but at least City did bare their teeth after it.
Said red button commentator also did a fine line in wrongly identifying players on both sides – something that at least raised a smile on an otherwise fairly grim evening.
But. it’s one we simply take on the chin. We’ve generally been spared the ‘well, that’s the Championship for you’ lines, but last night was very much one of those. And credit to Alex Neil who has put together a good side who, on the night, exploited City’s lethargy with an energetic. confident display. No complaints.
So, let’s not dwell. We’ve had a couple of weekends where the results have gone our way; last night was the opposite and we’ve been telling ourselves there will be peaks and troughs aplenty as we enter the final straight.
Farke and co won’t lose their nerve. Neither will the Yellow Army.
Bring on Bolton.