Of all the fixtures that they could have played on their return to action, Stoke would have been satisfied with a home encounter against bottom-of-the-table Derby.
However, not only did the Rams prove yet again that their position in the standings is a false representative of their form, their extra sharpness proved crucial as they claimed a 2-1 victory.
While criticising his team’s performance after the match, Michael O’Neill acknowledged that he hoped their lack of game time had been the decisive factor, and there are reasons to think that was the case.
Nevertheless, Stoke have now lost three of their last five matches in the Championship, an overall return of eight defeats from 23 games not the kind of form expected for a team pushing for the playoffs.
Just seven goals have been scored in their last eight outings, too, and O’Neill knows that is another aspect of their game which requires vast improvements.
After the appointment of Ryan Lowe, Preston would have hoped for a consistent run of fixtures in order for the new arrival to have an immediate influence on his squad.
Instead, Preston have had to deal with a three-week break from the pitch, two of the three coronavirus-related postponements due to cases within their own squad.
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Like their hosts, North End may require some time to get back up to speed, but they at least recorded a much-needed victory in Lowe’s opening fixture at Deepdale on December 11.
Preston were able to edge out Barnsley by the odd goal in three, a result which has kept the club as high as 15th position in the standings with three games in hand on some of the clubs above them.
Although Preston possess the third-worst away record in the division, their two away victories on the road have come since the start of November