Dave Seddon's verdict: Preston North End 0 Middlesbrough 2 - different opponent, same problem for PNE
Different opponent, new year, same venue, same problem.
Preston's New Year's Day clash with Middlesbrough at Deepdale ended in a 2-0 defeat, just like their final game of 2019 had against Reading.
Both matches had similar hallmarks, North End having the biggest share of the ball but doing little with it.
Boro, like Reading had done, got their noses in front and then soaked up what the Lilywhites threw at them.
Where Wednesday's visitors differed from Reading is that they offered much more of an attacking threat.
Rudy Gestede had been hand-picked for this game by Boro manager Jonathan Woodgate, making his first start for a year.
He bullied PNE, found the net for the first goal and had chances to score again.
The second goal was gifted to Boro by North End, with Ben Davies putting through his own net as he tried to deal with a Gestede flick-on.
Once Davies’ own goal made it 2-0, the last half-hour or so was about Preston toiling to find a way back into the contest while Boro looked to add to their lead by picking PNE off on the break.
A third goal from the visitors looked far more likely than Alex Neil’s men working their way back into it.
To say they lacked creativity and spark to their attacking play, was an understatement.
Boro strung five men across the back and dealt very comfortably with PNE’s approach.
Crosses hit the first man, it was often a Boro head which was first to the ball rather than a white shirt.
That is seven games in the last 10 that North End have failed to score.
They could probably have played until well into the evening and not scored, such was the predictability in the approach to the box.
Just at the moment North End have found a problem unlocking teams who sit a bit deeper and deny them space.
A week ago they pressed an attacking and expansive Leeds side superbly at Elland Road and got the reward of a first-half goal.
On Wednesday and last Sunday, Boro and Reading both denied PNE space in behind.
While Christmas started well with the 1-1 draw at Leeds, which wasn’t far off from being a win, it has ended badly with the back-to-back defeats.
They take a break from the Championship now, with the FA Cup tie against Norwich coming next.
But it’s back on the horse in terms of the league at Blackburn on January 11, and hopefully they have found their spark and mojo by then.
Neil had picked what many PNE supporters felt was his strongest side available for this game.
He made five changes from Sunday, Darnell Fisher, Patrick Bauer, Paul Gallagher, Tom Barkhuizen and David Nugent all returning.
Bauer’s return from a bout of flu was to last only until half-time though, the German replaced by Paul Huntington after not quite seeming himself.
In terms of chances, PNE tried their luck a few times from outside the box in the first half but without ever threatening.
Paul Gallagher put three shots high or wide, his shooting boots lacking a coat of polish.
Boro went in front five minutes before half-time, Gallagher having given away a cheap free-kick down the Boro right.
Paddy McNair, on as an early substitute for the injured Daniel Ayala, delivered it deep to the far post where Dael Fry got the better of Bauer in the air to knock it back into the middle.
Saville and Ben Pearson both swung at it before the ball fell to Gestede who acrobatically turned it into the net from six yards.
Andrew Hughes and Barkhuizen put headers off target after the break but it was Boro who stretched the lead in the 62nd minute.
A goalkick from Boro goalkeeper Aynsley Pears was headed on by Gestede.
Davies on the cover seemed to step on the ball and then as he tried to clear, succeeded only in knocking the ball past Declan Rudd as he came out.
PNE had to be thankful to Rudd for three good saves to keep the scoreline down.
He tipped McNair’s curling cross over the bar, then the keeper kept out Gestede’s close-range header.
Late on at the other end, Gallagher whipped in a free-kick from the right which Jayden Stockley headed over.