PNE boss Alex Neil delighted going into international break

Alex Neil says Preston are heading into a crucial stage of the season in ‘fantastic’ shape after their away victory over strugglers Sunderland.

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Sean Maguire takes on Adam Matthews in PNE's win over Sunderland at the Stadium of Light

Sean Maguire takes on Adam Matthews in PNE's win over Sunderland at the Stadium of Light

The 2-0 win at the Stadium of Light saw North End close to within two points of Derby and Middlesbrough who are in the last two play-off places.

Derby have a game in hand but are due at Deepdale on Easter Monday in what could prove a key clash in the race for a top-six slot.

Sean Maguire and Callum Robinson scored with headers in the second half to deliver the three points on Wearside.

PNE now have the 13-day international break to prepare for the eight-game run-in.

They resume action on Good Friday against Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough.

“We should be delighted with what we are doing just now,” said Preston boss Neil.

“We are mixing it with the big teams at this level and we are in a fantastic position.

“We have two points to make up on the two teams we are chasing – it is not just one team anymore.

“I think we’re in good form, we bounced back from the Fulham defeat – a game which we played very well in.

“We played better against Fulham last week than we did at Sunderland.

“We scored another two goals, kept a clean sheet and now have an international break when a few of our lads are getting recognition.”

Maguire’s opener was his fifth goal in four games, the Irishman meeting a free-kick from Paul Gallagher with a diving header.

The lead was doubled by Robinson’s header, his goal coming three minutes after defender Jake Clarke-Salter was sent off for the hosts.

PNE had 64% possession in the game, Neil using that to hit back at pre-match comments from Sunderland boss Chris Coleman who labelled North End as a ‘route-one’ team.

“What is interesting is that I saw Chris’ comments that we were a long-ball team,” said Neil.

“I found that amusing to be honest, I don’t think we were long-ball on Saturday by any means.

“I wouldn’t say we have been long-ball all season.”

The victory at Sunderland was achieved without the services of Declan Rudd, the goalkeeper staying at home to attend the birth of his son Luca.

Preston have five players away on international duty, Maguire, Alan Browne and Daryl Horgan joining up with the Republic of Ireland, while Chris Maxwell and Billy Bodin are with Wales in China.

A hamstring injury has forced Greg Cunningham to pull out of the Ireland squad heading to Turkey.

Left-back Cunningham missed the Sunderland game after picking up the injury in the Fulham defeat.