Wigan Athletic vs Preston North End. Sky Bet Championship.
Report and highlights from the Sky Bet Championship clash at the DW Stadium
Saturday 8 February 2020 17:21, UK
Preston withstood an intense second-half fightback to beat relegation-threatened Wigan 2-1 and leapfrog Bristol City into the Sky Bet Championship play-off places on Saturday lunchtime.
Tom Barkhuizen slotted the opening goal after a slick build-up (7), but the Latics responded well and denied their opponents a second before the break, with goalkeeper David Marshall keeping a Sean Maguire header out.
The lead was extended when Daniel Johnson scored his 10th goal of the season with aplomb (48), but though Chey Dunkley reduced the deficit (57), pressure from the hosts failed to herald an equaliser in the final stages.
Victory for Alex Neil's side means North End are sure to end the weekend in the top six, with the Latics still in trouble in the final spot in the relegation zone.
A few months back, gunning for a third successive win would've seemed a distant dream for Wigan, who looked destined for the drop, largely thanks to a dreadful away record. Their battling spirit has shone through in recent weeks, though, and they started well as they looked to follow up last week's shock win over Leeds.
That said, shortly after the returning Jamal Lowe forced Declan Rudd to push his effort round the post, Preston took the lead in style. Ben Pearson's passing abilities are often forgotten, but he cleverly found Johnson, who squared for Barkhuizen to tap home.
They looked set to add a second quickly afterwards. Latics stopper Marshall had to be alert to tip a header from Sean Maguire wide, before Scott Sinclair - who spent a loan spell at the DW Stadium a decade ago - slid just wide of the far post.
Within five minutes of the restart, that second goal came when Johnson rifled in a low shot after a rapid counter-attack, but before they had the chance to rest on their laurels, Dunkley prodded substitute Joe Gelhardt's improvised cross past Declan Rudd to hand Paul Cook's men a lifeline.
Paul Cook makes just one change as he looks to guide Wigan to a third successive league victory, with Jamal Lowe replacing Gavin Massey. Brighton loanee Leon Balogun is included on the bench for the first time, while there’s home debut for Tom Pearce.
Meanwhile, with the chance to end the day in the top six, Preston boss Alex Neil brought Andrew Hughes and Sean Maguire back into the starting line-up, at the expense of Josh Harrop and Joe Rafferty.
Remarkably, Preston hadn't lost a league game where they'd led at the break since January 2018 but as they sat deep towards the end of the game, they invited the pressure that could have put that 33-game streak in jeopardy.
Michael Jacobs saw a first-time volley turned behind in the final 10 minutes, before the lively Gelhardt stung Rudd's palms with a rasping drive after cutting in off the right flank, but Wigan couldn't find a way through.
Wigan's Paul Cook: "I'm very, very disappointed with our performance. I thought in general it was as flat and as poor as we've been for quite a period of time. We didn't have enough players winning their individual battles all over the pitch.
"And it took until the last half an hour, for the kid (Gelhardt) to come off the bench, to provide a real spark. We then huffed and puffed and probably took a semblance of credit from the game with all honesty. But the game had gone away from us by their second goal just after half-time. Great credit to Preston, I thought they were better than us for long periods of the game, and in my opinion deserved their win."
Preston's Alex Neil: "I thought we played well in spells, and I thought Wigan played well in spells. But I felt in our good spells we were more dangerous than they were in theirs. I thought we scored a great early goal, Sean (Maguire) couldn't have done any more with his header that would have made it 2-0, and then Scott (Sinclair) really should score.
"If we'd taken those opportunities, we'd have been more comfortable, and we spoke at half-time about getting the next goal. We were determined not to rest on our laurels, it was important to get the next goal, and it's a really well-worked move to make it 2-0. At that point, we were really comfortable, but then we started playing as though we were really comfortable.
"We weren't getting to the ball quickly enough, and Wigan started to apply a bit of pressure. Obviously when balls are coming into your box, all it takes is one good cross, or for somebody to get across the front of somebody. I thought if they were going to equalise, it was going to come from a set-play, but we deserved to win the game."
As previously mentioned, the midfielder's excellent vision and passing is often overshadowed by his heavy-handed approach, but while he didn't let that side of his game fall by the wayside, he laid on a superb assist for the opener and was, as ever, an important part of Alex Neil's team.
Both sides are in action this midweek, live on Sky Sports Football Red Button. Wigan host Middlesbrough on Tuesday at the DW Stadium, while Preston travel to Stoke on Wednesday at the bet365 Stadium.