Preston North End 3-2 Millwall: Dave Seddon's verdict as injury-hit Lilywhites continue fine run of Championship form
Even with players dropping likes flies because of injury, somehow Preston continue to pull rabbits out of hats in terms of results.
Victory over Millwall at a freezing Deepdale took their points tally in the last dozen games to 23.
The current run is just one defeat in 12 since the start of October, six wins and five draws among that sequence.
If you were taking nearly two points per game over the course of a season, that would be promotion form.
As it is, PNE are playing a game of catch-up still after their poor late August and a poor whole of September.
But the most promising stat after Saturday’s win is that they are closer on points to Middlesbrough in sixth place than they are to Millwall who slipped into the bottom three as a consequence of leaving Lancashire empty-handed.
Through the majority of the good run, injuries have tested Alex Neil to one degree or another.
By my reckoning, only in the matches against Wigan, Brentford, Rotherham and Bristol City has North End manager Neil had what you might describe as a healthy complement of players to choose from.
I don’t count long-term casualties Billy Bodin and Josh Harrop in that number, although they are two you can add to the list.
Louis Moult was the latest to be confined to a seat in the stand at the weekend.
Last week’s matchwinner at Nottingham Forest tweaked a nerve in his hamstring in training during the week and wasn’t risked against Millwall.
With four games in quick succession over Christmas and New Year, Saturday was not a time to takes risks with the fitness of anyone.
Hence Moult was on the sidelines and North End filled their bench by putting Ethan Walker on it, the 16-year-old local boy who has caught the eye in the youth team.
Yet still they found a way of beating Millwall, still found a way of scoring another three goals – that’s 35 for the season which is impressive going.
Alan Browne opened the scoring to take his tally for the campaign to seven goals.
Man of the match Tom Barkhuizen was on target with his sixth of 2018/19.
Rounding things off was Andrew Hughes, the left-back scoring a second goal in Preston colours.
It was a strange old game, North End spending the first half hour or so labouring to find a way through Millwall’s rigid set-up.
Out of the blue they then scored twice in the closing eight minutes of the first half, Browne and then Barkhuizen on target.
The second half was a lot different, a lot more open.
Millwall had to come out of their shells and for a spell were well on top, reducing the deficit just after the hour mark.
Hughes put North End’s safety blanket back on with the third goal nine minutes from time.
It was needed, the visitors finding the net again late in stoppage-time.
A 3-2 scoreline might suggest something of a thriller but that would be stretching things.
Conditions did not lend themselves to a classic game of football, with the temperature hovering just above freezing.
The wind chill made it feel even colder, the 10,924 crowd using most of their energy to try and keep warm rather than create an atmosphere.
Neil described it as one of those games where all that mattered was the result, with the display secondary.
That hit the nail on the head, this a case of points put in the bag even if it was not the most freeflowing performance.
Neil will have been able to enjoy the staff’s Christmas party with the knowledge of his team’s recent run.
The challenge for Neil once the fuzzy head has cleared is to keep Preston going on the same upward trend over the Christmas period before the January transfer window and an emptying treatment room perhaps provides him with a few more bodies to work with.
Moult’s absence meant yet another different looking front line.
Daniel Johnson shuffled across to play on the right, with Barkhuizen on the left and Browne as the No.10.
Lukas Nmecha, the only available out-and-out striker, led the line but had little joy up there.
North End at least had Ben Pearson back after two games out nursing a thigh problem.
Pearson was company for Paul Gallagher in the deeper midfield roles, Gallagher the assist king in this game.
It was his right boot which provided the passes which led to the first two goals.
The way things have gone for Gallagher this season, was there any better business done at PNE in the summer than to extend his stay?
You could probably have written the script for the first 30 minutes of the game well in advance and got it spot on.
Without an away win this season, Millwall sat deep in a well organised 4-4-2 system which had few gaps to exploit.
North End often had to go sideways, be patient as they tried to draw the visitors out.
The stalemate was broken in the 37th minute, Gallagher finding room to thread a low ball into the box, one which ran through Nmecha but into the path of Browne.
The Irishman fired a low shot between keeper Jordan Archer and post.
Five minutes later it was 2-0 as Gallagher lifted the ball from his own half over the top of the Millwall defence to find Barkhuizen on the right.
Barkhuizen raced into the box and as Archer rushed out in an attempt to narrow the angle, he drove a confident finish across him.
The advantage was halved with 61 minutes gone, Jake Cooper rising at the far post to head home a corner.
There were chances for Millwall to level but it was PNE who got the next goal nine minutes from time.
Barkhuizen was upended in full flow two yards outside the box, Hughes taking the free-kick which stayed low and clipped a defender on its way to deceive Archer.
Millwall had the last word with more than two minutes of added-on time played, Lee Gregory firing home a consolation.