Preston North End 1-1 Aston Villa: Dave Seddon's verdict as depleted Lilywhites show what they're made of
Preston supporters would have been forgiven for having a feeling of trepidation going into the clash with Aston Villa.
With near enough a full team of players sidelined by injury and suspension, with four teenagers on the bench, this assignment looked a tough one for PNE.
But mission impossible it was not, the fans able to leave Deepdale with their heads held high and chests stuck out after watching a display up there with the best this season.
It didn’t deliver the victory it probably merited but after two successive defeats, a point was not to be sniffed at.
Alex Neil’s team talk had lent heavily on making sure his players didn’t feel sorry for themselves because of the lengthy injury list.
Rest assured, there was no self-pity – the bare bones XI getting on with the job with an admirable quality.
Never mind that while the visitors introduced from the bench Albert Adomah and Birkir Bjarnason – players who have been in World Cup squads – two of North End’s changes were teenagers Ethan Walker and Adam O’Reilly.
Aged 16 and 156 days, local boy Walker became Preston’s youngest player in a league match.
It was O’Reilly’s debut too at the age of 17, this a day the young pair won’t forget in a hurry.
PNE and Villa have history of serving-up entertainment over the last three seasons.
The 3-3 draw in the reverse fixture three months ago was a thriller at the Villa.
Two years ago, North End served-up a 2-0 victory over the Midlands outfit and came back from two down to draw 2-2 later in the campaign.
While nothing was going to match October’s 3-3, this was a high octane offering none the less.
If Boxing Day against Hull was a flat festive offering on a par with a Christmas visit from the teetotal great-aunty, Saturday afternoon was akin to the riotous knees-up with the lads.
Preston hit the woodwork twice, had an effort cleared off the line, Villa missed an open goal and were denied by two good Declan Rudd saves.
Neither side settled for the draw, even if that was what they ended-up with.
Until the final whistle the play was flowing from one end to the other, it something of a disappointment that the game had to finish.
Preston’s impressive show was a team effort.
It might have been a side which was thrown together but they played as a unit and stuck to the game plan.
The ball over the top of a Villa defence which wasn’t on the tall side, proved quite effective.
A handful of chances came via that route, one of them playing in Tom Barkhuizen to hit the post – the second shot of the day to rattle the woodwork.
But for their goal, one which drew them level after the visitors had opened the scoring against the run of play, they worked the ball on the floor around the Villa back four.
Who turned the ball over the line is up for debate, with Lukas Nmecha claiming it was him despite it officially being recorded as an own goal from Ahmed Elmohamady.
Nmecha needs a goal, I’m quite sure Elmohamaday won’t want it, so let’s be generous and let the Manchester City loanee have it.
The tempo Preston played at in this game was in contrast to Boxing Day.
It being an open contest suited them, Villa’s attacking style leaving the gaps for the hosts to work in.
They had a far better balance about them than they had done three days earlier.
Width was provided by Barkhuizen and Paul Gallagher.
Moving Graham Burke behind Nmecha gave the Irishman a new lease of life after looking so off the pace against Hull.
Down the spine of the North End side, Ryan Ledson and Jordan Storey impressed in equal measure, good shows as substitutes on Boxing Day landing them starts this time.
Ledson filled the vacancy created by Ben Pearson’s red card, Storey in for the injured Ben Davies.
Storey’s calmness at the back was beyond his 21 years and relative inexperience.
More of this from Storey and the Â£500,000 which PNE paid Exeter for him is looking like money well spent.
The formation looked more 4-4-1-1 then the favoured 4-2-3-1.
However you viewed it, the system was effective – Burke at times right up there next to Nmecha.
There was a real intent from Preston from the start, Storey crashing a shot against the bar in the second minute after goalkeeper Orjan Nyland had juggled and dropped a Gallagher corner.
Barkhuizen lifted a shot too high after Johnson had dropped a ball over the Villa backline.
Johnson later created a chance for Burke with the most accurate of diagonal passes from deep.
Burke stretched to catch it left-footed on the volley, that forcing Nyland into the save of the game.
Only occasionally had Villa got in and around North End’s box, hence it being with a big sense of frustration that they took a 45th minute lead.
For the fourth time in three games, they were breached by a header.
Glenn Whelan’s corner was met six yards out by Tammy Abraham who got the wrong side of Paul Huntington.
The home side reacted well after the break, Barkhuizen beating Nyland in the air to send a header goalwards which Alan Hutton hoofed off the line.
That was just a temporary reprieve for Villa, North End pulling level just past the hour.
Johnson found Gallagher with a pass and ran on to his return ball threaded down the right hand side of the box.
His cross hit the sliding Elmonhamady,with Nmecha in close attendance as the ball squirmed into the net.
Barkhuizen put a shot from the angle against the post after beating Nyland to yet another Johnson ball forward.
At the other end, somehow Bjarnason put a shot over the bar from barely two yards out.
North End survived that and deservedly so, a point the least they deserved.