Preston North End exited the Carabao Cup on Tuesday night with a penalty shoot-out defeat to Middlesbrough.
The Lilywhites led twice through Callum Robinson and Tom Barkhuizen only for Boro to peg them back on both occasions, the game then heading to spot kicks after a 2-2 draw.
Robinson and Graham Burke missed for PNE as Tony Pulis’ side advanced to the next round 4-3 on penalties.
We take a look at the main talking points below.
The League Cup may not be the priority but Alex Neil was desperate to win
Given PNE’s recent form this game mattered more than previous rounds of the Carabao Cup. That was certainly the theory pre-match and it was backed up by Alex Neil’s team selection. His side showed just three changes from the defeat at Sheffield United last time out in the Championship. Ben Davies was the only regular rested with Darnell Fisher banned and Paul Gallagher dropping to the bench. Jordan Storey and Brandon Barker continued their respective runs of starting every round of the League Cup while Ben Pearson was back from his ban. Tony Pulis on the other hand made 11 changes which reflected the respective starts to the season of both sides. What followed was a game that was largely easy on the eye with chances aplenty at both ends, the shoot-out defeat harsh on North End.
PNE’s form is poor but Robinson is at the peak of his powers
Forget the poor penalty miss, Callum Robinson has never played better than he is at the moment. Having finished last season strongly that No.7 shirt seems to have kicked him on even more. Again playing as a striker, he picked up his fourth goal of the season with a neat turn and finish after a good move involving Pearson and Alan Browne. The feature of his play is his confidence on the ball. Prepared to pick up the ball and run at defenders more than ever, there was one backheel to Barker in the first half which sums up just where he is at this moment. One of those with more experience in a young squad the Republic of Ireland international is certainly making his mark this season. He’ll just need to work on his spot kicks..
Barker can be a game changer
The Manchester City loanee seems to like the League Cup. He has started every round of the competition and was again a real handful having impressed against Morecambe and scored a wonder goal against Leeds. His direct running caused constant problems for the Boro backline with his presence in the side giving PNE a different outlet. Neil has made no secret of the fact he thinks that his defensive game needs work but Barker showed on Tuesday night that he was willing to work. He had the crowd on his feet with one sliding challenge as he recovered after an error and kept working. Faded as the game went on but there is a real player in there.
Pearson gives North End something completely different
It may have ‘only’ been the League Cup but there was no saving Ben Pearson to the weekend after his ban finished. The midfielder is a unique and extremely key figure for North End, something which Alex Neil has never shied away from saying. Forget his reputation with referees, Pearson is an underrated footballer who makes North End tick. Plenty of raking balls went left and right to compliment the more regulation tackles and passes that got PNE going. He does need to watch his step, one needless foul in the first half bringing a stern warning from referee Oliver Langford where other players may have just been told to get on with it. But he's back and all at Deepdale couldn't be happier.
Defence will continue to be a real cause for concern
This may have been a more positive performance but it is clear where the real problem lies. From the opening moments when Fletcher evaded several tackles it was evident that this is backline low on confidence. The former West Ham man then had all the time in the world to round Chris Maxwell and level up 10 minutes before half-time after taking a Lewis Wing pass which split the North End defence all too easily. The second goal isn’t one PNE will want to watch back either. The Lilywhites overplayed in a needless area of the pitch and were made to pay by Marcus Tavernier’s fine shot from 25 yards. There were other shaky moments too as North End couldn’t keep the back door shut once again.
Barkhuizen’s goal might make all the difference
He’s been something of a boo boy this season but this might be a breakthrough night for Tom Barkhuizen. Like a lot of his team mates he played with more freedom, probably because the pressure of league points amid a poor run of form wasn’t looming large. He was full of running, more like his old self, and then went close with a low shot from distance that came crashing off the post. The winger went one better a few minutes later with a drive from 25 yards clipping the same upright and going in. It might just be the shot in the arm his season needs.