PNE 1, Arsenal 2: Dave Seddon's big match verdict
If Preston North End can match in their Championship games the type of display produced for parts of this thrilling FA Cup tie, then the future is bright.
That is the conclusion to be drawn from Saturday teatime when North End out-gunned Arsenal for spells, belying the divisional gap between the clubs – belying too the gulf in class which existed on paper.
For 45 minutes, they gave the Wenger boys a torrid time, in the eyes of Simon Grayson producing the best half of football in his three years and 11 months in charge.
The Lilywhites threatened a shock, taking a 1-0 lead into the interval with them.
In truth, that advantage should have been two or three goals such had been the way they stamped their mark on an absorbing contest which you could not take your eyes off for a second.
Was this going to be the year when Arsene Wenger failed to take his Gunners side beyond the third round for the first time of his tenure?
At half-time, you might have been tempted to bet your mortagage on it.
What would probably have held you back from handing over cash to the bookies was a bit of a feeling of deja-vu.
The Lilywhites have got themselves into positions like this before, the goals return not matching the quality of football produced.
On this occasion, the only criticism you could aim their way was that chances were not taken.
The Gunners were let off the hook and went on to repay such generosity by equalising with the second half just 50 seconds old.
Very cruelly, the side who sit fifth in the Premier League and in the knockout stages of the Champions League, then netted a deflected winner in the 89th minute.
Other than a clinical edge and a slight bit of luck, there was nothing missing from PNE’s game.
They were as good as I have seen this group of players.
In Ben Pearson, they had the best player on the pitch.
He might not have been flavour of the month with the 5,000 away fans but he was in the three home stands.
Pearson pressed, ratted, bullied and at the same time showed what a very good footballer he is with a range of passing and comfort on the ball.
That new contract which he signed last week might have been very timely, given that anyone watching could not have helped but be impressed by him.
Not far behind was Aiden McGeady, some of his play in the first half a joy to watch.
The pirouette turn which he produced mid-run in the build-up to the early goal from Callum Robinson, was a fine piece of skill.
We hear the phrase ‘good feet’ often in football, this applies very much to the on-loan winger.
Robinson should not have been the only PNE player to get his name on the scoresheet as play flowed towards the Bill Shankly Kop for 45 minutes.
Jordan Hugill, Pearson, Paul Gallagher and Marnick Vermijl had chances, in the case of Hugill it was a case of Robinson’s square ball across the six-yard box being hit too hard for him to connect with.
They had a ‘goal’ chalked off too, Paul Huntington’s challenge on keeper David Ospina before Robinson nodded in, frowned upon by ref Robert Madley.
That was unfortunate on Huntington who played very well at the back.
Pre-match, it was a worry that PNE’s back line might be led a merry dance by Arsenal’s movement up front.
Credit to Huntington and Tom Clarke, they kept a good enough line.
While it was not a Gunners team with their full armoury which North End faced, it was powerful enough.
Six players who started at Deepdale had started their 3-3 draw with Bournemouth five nights earlier.
Two who came into the starting XI, Lucas Perez and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, had seen significant action as subs at Bournemouth.
An early evening start and fog swirling in the floodlights made for a special – and noisy – atmosphere.
If it was loud at kick-off, the volume rose markedly when Preston went ahead.
Gallagher’s pass found McGeady who set off on a run through Gunners territory.
Aaron Ramsey stepped in, McGeady turning his back and then spinning round to open up space.
His pass found Hugill just inside the box, Shkodran Mustafi’s challenge sending the ball spinning into the path of ROBINSON who held off Nacho Monreal to score.
PNE were in a no thrills 4-4-2 system, McGeady and Gallagher out wide, Pearson and Daniel Johnson inside.
Up front, Robinson and Hugill linked-up well to stretch the visitors’ defence.
That combination should have brought about a second goal in the 24th minute, with Robinson having sprung the offside trap down the right.
His cross inside to Hugill need only have been rolled but he put too much pace on it and the ball was too far in front of the sliding Hugill.
Gallagher’s lob over keeper Ospina was kicked off the line by Monreal.
Missed chances came back to bite, the half-time brew barely digested when Alex Iwobi laid off a pass into the path of RAMSEY, the Wales midfielder rifling a shot past Chris Maxwell.
The momentum was with Arsenal in the second half, a replay at the Emirates on the cards until the 89th minute.
Olivier Giroud headed on Ramsey’s cross, with Perez chasing it to the byline.
His back-heel ran into the path of GIROUD, the skipper’s shot clipping off Alan Browne and in at the near post – it was heartbreaking stuff.
Chris Maxwell 8
The keeper made fine saves from Mustafi and Welbeck in the second half, his handling and positioning was good.
Marnick Vermijl 8
Part of a solid defence which didn’t give Arsenal a sniff in the first half. Had a chance to score from McGeady’s cross.
Tom Clarke 8
Handled Giroud and Perez well, even as the pressure mounted in the second half. Got in some timely clearances.
Paul Huntington 8
Commanding display at the heart of the defence, no-nonsense at times but very effective.
Greg Cunningham 8
All-action display up and down the left side, his pace was a threat in the first half to the Gunners back line.
Paul Gallagher 8
Very involved in the first half before an injury forced him off before the hour. Played his part in the goal.
Ben Pearson 9
The fiery midfield continues to produce excellent performances, he was the heartbeat of the North End side.
Daniel Johnson 8
Combined well with Pearson on the middle of the park, always available for a pass.
Aiden McGeady 9
His run, footwork and turn in the build-up to PNE’s goal was worth the admission money alone. Dangerous all game.
Callum Robinson 8
On hand to shoot Preston into the lead and didn’t deserve to be on the losing side. Lively throughout up front.
Jordan Hugill 8
His abrasive style caused Arsenal plenty of problems, played his part in the goal, led the line.
Alan Browne 6
Replaced Gallagher in the 58th minute. Unlucky with Arsenal’s winner, it being him it deflected off.
Simon Makienok 6
Came on to lead the line in place of Hugill. Didn’t have much chance to make an impact Arsenal on the front foot.
Daryl Horgan 7
The Irishman made a late cameo off the bench, one last throw of the dice. Looked lively on the left-wing.
subs not used
Eoin Doyle, Tommy Spurr, Ben Pringle, Anders Lindegaard.
Ospina, Maitland-Niles (Holding 90), Gabriel, Mustafi, Monreal, Ramsey, Xhaka, Iwobi, Perez (Reine-Adelaide 90), Oxlade-Chamberlain (Welbeck 83), Giroud. Subs (not used): Jenkinson, Dasilva, Willock, Martinez.
21,185 (5,029 away)