Ben Davies ready to be part of much-changed PNE defence for second Aston Villa clash

It would not be stretching a point to say that Aston Villa will be facing a very different Preston side at Villa Park to the one they met in the reverse fixture three-and-a-half months ago.

By The Newsroom
Monday, 19th February 2018, 3:00 pm
Updated Monday, 19th February 2018, 5:20 pm

For one, PNE’s 2-0 defeat at Deepdale on November 1, came when Alex Neil’s men were in the middle of a dip in form – it was the third of four defeats.

In mitigation, Neil was without eight defenders by the time the whistle blew for half-time that night.

Six were missing to start with – Greg Cunningham, Ben Davies, Tom Clarke, Paul Huntington, Tommy Spurr and Marnick Vermijl – then Josh Earl and Calum Woods both hobbled off at half-time with knee injuries.

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Ben Davies (right) is congratulated by Tom Barkhuizen after scoring against Birmingham last month

Alan Browne played as an emergency centre-back in the second half alongside Andy Boyle who had come in for his first league start of the campaign.

Of the back four that night, only Darnell Fisher is set to start at Villa.

It could be that a defence of Fisher, Huntington, 
Davies and Cunningham takes to the field in the 
Midlands, the first time that particular combination has played this season.

Centre-back Davies was missing from the home clash with Villa having had his appendix out.

Ben Davies (right) is congratulated by Tom Barkhuizen after scoring against Birmingham last month

It was a game he watched on television from his sofa convalescing from surgery.

“We had a very different back four out that night,” said Davies.

“The defence will look a lot different at their place.

“We go there with a lot of confidence, having been on a good run – it is one loss in 16 league games.”

North End’s defence has been particularly hard hit by injuries this season.

Neil did not have Clarke available until December, the legacy of an Achilles tendon injury suffered at the tail end of last term.

Cunningham and Spurr were lost early in the season to serious injuries, ones they are relatively recently back from.

Fisher has had a couple of spells out, so too Woods.

Davies missed four games after the operation to take his appendix out, while his appearance against Wolves came after the same length of absence with a hamstring injury. He slotted back nicely into the defence, resuming his partnership at the heart of it with Huntington.

Said Davies: “I could have got back in time for the game at Brentford but I was ill the other week.

“They took me out of the fold for that one in order to get me right for Wolves.

“Sometimes it helps to come back into the team against a team like that.

“It was a big test and you needed to have prepared right and be fully focused – I definitely did that.

“You have to be focused against Wolves – they had good players who could do anything at any time.

“It meant lots of talking, good communication and lots of concentration.

“The defence has had a lot of disruption this season.

“It seems that whenever we have got a player back, someone else has picked 
up an injury. We all know 
our job so if you go into the team, you are comfortable doing it.

“That creates a solid base which has benefited us this season.”

North End will be facing a Villa side who won seven games on the bounce before losing 2-0 at Fulham at the weekend.

That run took them up to second place in the division, although Saturday’s defeat saw them slip back to third.

Villa’s squad is packed full of experience, John Terry, Robert Snodgrass, Glenn Whelan and James Chester among those who have played in the Premier League.

Davies said: “Villa have been on a great run.

“But they lost on Saturday and will be looking to bounce back from that.

“We go there in good form, we had a good result against Wolves and it should be a good game.

“Villa Park is a great ground to play at but once the whistle goes, you forget the surroundings and just get on with the game – we are there to play football.”

PNE head to Villa in seventh place, just three points off the play-off pace.

With 14 games to go, time remains on their side to bridge the gap.

A good result at Villa Park, on the back of the 1-1 draw with Wolves, would certainly boost their credentials.

Davies is confident that PNE can sustain their push for the top six, a confidence which has spread down from Neil who has talked up their chances since the start of the season.

“As soon as the manager came in, you could tell that he had a strong mentality,” said Davies.

“Eventually that rubs off on the players and it has 
definitely rubbed off on me.

“We want to get into the top six, that is the aim.

“At the moment we are just outside the six and our aim is to be there on the final day of the season – that is the important date.”