Can Preston clinch an unlikely play-off spot?
After match week 10 of the Championship season, Preston North End sat rock bottom of the league, with just five points from a possible 30.
Seven of their 11 league defeats this season came in that spell, though many of the games they lost were close encounters. Only Norwich City, Leeds United and Derby County beat Preston convincingly.
Alex Neil’s men have since gone on sensational run which has seen them shoot clear of the relegation places, and pushed them all the way to the play-off battle.
With their form far superior in comparison to those around them, can anything stop the Lilywhites charge to the Premier League?
The manager’s been here before…
In January 2015, Neil was appointed by Norwich with the hope he’d be able to find the consistency that could get Norwich back to the big time.
At the time, it was a risky move. At 33-years old with only 77 league games under his managerial belt at Scottish minnows Hamilton Academical, many were unconvinced by his credentials.
However, Neil managed to notch 15 wins from the 22 regular season games, securing a third-place finish and a play-off spot.
The Scotsman guided Norwich up through the play-offs with ease, with a relatively old squad too. A -2 aggregate win over local rivals Ipswich Town gave them the chance to face Middlesbrough at Wembley, where a quick start gave them a 2-0 win and secured their Premier League spot.
The upturn in fortune and form can’t solely be put down to the manager, players also deserve credit. But he’s managed to get the side motivated when it looked like it could be a season filled with doom and gloom. Neil’s experience with Norwich four seasons ago will go a long way to helping the Lilywhites on their tough run in.
Crucial fixtures in April
With only eight league fixtures left for Preston, every point is crucial for their push. There are no easy games in the Championship, but their start to April couldn’t get any tougher.
Sheffield United and Leeds are pushing for the automatic play-off spots, and alongside Norwich, either side could be crowned champions come May. The Lilywhites host the Blades on the 6th April, closely followed by a visit from Leeds on the 9th April.
If Preston can pick up at least four points from those two fixtures, their hopes of a play-off spot could then rely on their next game, West Brom at the Hawthorns.
On current form, the Lilywhites need to be looking at picking up at least six points from those three games, but claiming one win and two draws from the three games could leave them in a good position too.
Come out of those games with a decent record, and it’s looking good. The season run-in includes favourable games against Ipswich at home, Reading, Wigan and Brentford away.
If they have to rely on others, Boro and Derby have seen their late season form falter and Bristol City have dropped back after a long unbeaten run.
Sheffield Wednesday are revitalised under Steve Bruce, and although further out than Preston, the game at Deepdale on 27th April could go a long way to deciding who claims sixth place.
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