Preston North End never really looked like they would prise Manchester City’s grip off the Carabao Cup when they met at Deepdale this week.
A competition which many clubs don’t rank too highly seems to be one which Pep Guardiola has taken a proper shine to.
In executive box one in the Invincibles Pavilion, which doubles as the venue for post-match press conferences, Guardiola explained his liking for a competition which gets a new sponsors’ name attached every couple of years or so.
Guardiola’s reasoning was along the lines that the competition doesn’t distract from the business end of a title challenge as it is played mainly in the first half of the season, with the final at the end of February.
City have won it in three of the last four seasons and twice on the run.
If they continue to field sides as strong as the one at Deepdale, who would bet against them lifting it again early in 2020?
The team sheet certainly got folk talking ahead of the game.
The visitors’ front six was packed with quality, Raheem Sterling the headline act.
Bernardo Silva, Gabriel Jesus, David Silva, Phil Foden and Ilkay Gundogan formed the support act.
Guardiola made nine changes, while five of Alex Neil’s XI had started at Birmingham four days earlier.
That caught us off-guard, I must admit. Two or three changes had been envisaged but Sean Maguire, Patrick Bauer, Andrew Hughes, Paul Gallagher, Ben Pearson and Declan Rudd were given the night off – Rudd on bench duty.
Neil reasoned later that he had to look beyond the City game to a busy schedule of three league games in a week, starting with Bristol City’s visit today. He didn’t want to push Gallagher through two games in four days, while Pearson had struggled through the latter stages at Birmingham.
Hughes was only just back from a hamstring injury and Maguire has been carefully managed since recovering from the same injury last season.
So you could see the logic in Neil’s selection, although it did leave a sense of, ‘What if?’ Had some of those rested players played, would it have made a difference to the scoreline? Would North End have caused a shock?
The probability is that it would not have made much of a difference, given City’s quality and strength.
If North End get the win they desire against Bristol City, Neil’s rotation will have paid dividends.
Of those who got their chance against City, none let themselves down.
Ryan Ledson impressed in midfield. His early cross for Josh Harrop came from a similar position from which he set up Maguire for the opening goal against Brentford a fortnight ago.
He didn’t dive into tackles, which he had a tendency to do at times last season.
Joe Rafferty slotted back in at left-back, a position he had filled for six weeks in Hughes’ absence.
You would say Rafferty was unlucky to be dropped at Birmingham. Neil agreed but explained he wanted Hughes’ height at set-pieces against the Blues.
Alan Browne came back in midfield and wore the captain’s armband too.
At the moment he’s in and out of the side. The No.10 role he made his own for two seasons is currently in the possession of Daniel Johnson.
So Browne is having to compete for one of the two deeper midfield roles.
Brad Potts played on the right of midfield and is still to recapture the spark of last season.
The couple of weeks of pre-season he missed with a knee injury look to have had an effect.
Potts probably needs a few games to get going but with competition so strong that is difficult.
A major talking point was the size of the crowd and, furthermore, how many will be back for the Bristol City game.
To see Deepdale packed under the floodlights was a joy – all 22,025 tickets sold.
Segregation and safety features meant some seats were left empty, but all PNE could sell they did.
The fact many of them clapped Sterling off the pitch when he was substituted didn’t go unnoticed.
It was a nice touch and Sterling recognised it with a ‘good luck’ message to North End on Twitter.
Whatever the outcome, when you get talent like that on show it is worth a clap.
There hasn’t been a player of his standard gracing the Deepdale turf for many a year.
So will Tuesday night have tempted any non-regulars to come back?
You would like to think some were impressed with the atmosphere and some of what PNE did on the pitch.
Don’t get me wrong, we are not talking about a few thousand extra rocking back up against Bristol City and then Barnsley next week.
But if a couple of hundred do, maybe a few more, that would be a start.
There was the debate on social media about fans who turn out for the big cup ties but not for league games.
I don’t follow the idea of those who would rather sit in a half-empty stadium than share it with fans who only occasionally turn up.
I’d rather the ground be full than have row upon row of empty seats.
It brings in added revenue for starters and it is vital that North End somehow grow the fanbase.
How that is done long-term we could discuss all day long, but landing a big cup tie like the City game certainly doesn’t do any harm.
The crowd might well be back down to 12,000-13,000 this weekend, but if a few from Tuesday night return, that is a start.
Just returning to events on the pitch against City, the loudest cheer of the night from Preston’s point of view was David Nugent stepping on to the pitch as a sub in the 63rd minute.
It had been 12 years and four months since Nugent last turned for North End at Deepdale but his popularity clearly hasn’t diminished.
Some of the younger fans applauding him on to the pitch hadn’t been born the last time he was here! That’s how long ago it was.