Stoke City had a case of Barnsley déjà vu as they couldn’t make their play count at Preston.
An outstanding display by Preston keeper Daniel Iversen, combined with a daft free-kick to concede for an equaliser, well hit but so frustrating.
Nick Powell had given Stoke a perfect start with a brilliant header to meet a Josh Tymon cross but Iversen was at his best to keep out Tymon and Smith and Powell again.
It was another chance that Stoke let up to really throw their elbows around at the top of the table – a mixture of not being clinical enough to match their build-up play and a knack of giving away one big chance too easily at the other end.
But they gave everything again, were cheered off at the end by a strong mid-week away following and now have to find that final piece of the jigsaw.
Michael O’Neill made three changes to his starting XI after Harry Souttar was passed fit to lead the side out as captain in the absence of Joe Allen (toe).
Leo Ostigard returned to the backline in place of James Chester, who travelled but wasn’t on the bench. “James Chester is pretty much there now as he comes back from injury (in the summer) but it’s come a bit too soon for him,” explained Andy Cousins.
Jordan Thompson freshened up midfield and Tommy Smith was straight back in after serving a three-game ban for a red card picked up against Barnsley.
The FA verdict for Rory Delap and Dean Holden from that Barnsley game – and the fracas involving staff and players after Holden went into the visitors’ technical area to retrieve the ball late on – landed in the hours before kick-off: fines and one-game touchline bans.
They watched the game from the stands while Cousins and coach Mark Burton, who usually sit with the analysts, moved to the dug-out.
There was a slight change in formation too with Powell and Mario Vrancic lurking in the inside right and left channels respectively while Thompson and Sawyers sat deeper.
O’Neill had hinted he wanted Powell in that space to improve the link between thirds and the movement, passing and speed of play through the opening stages demonstrated what he meant, with Josh Tymon and Tommy Smith joining in down the wings.
Powell had a deflected dipper test Daniel Iversen before he opened the scoring with a sumptuous header, drifting to the back post to meet a super Tymon cross and cushion it over the keeper inside the far post.
Iversen remained in the thick of it and patted a Smith shot over the bar before Smith picked out Vrancic with a short free-kick that the midfielder pinged over the bar. Vrancic soon returned the favour to send Smith running into the box, only just cut out by recovering defenders.
Ben Wilmot joined the attack at one stage, popping up in the area in open play to meet a cut back from Vrancic and force a decent block. And Iversen had to spread himself well to stop a Powell effort from close range after Sawyers had spread the ball wide to Vrancic.
But Stoke couldn’t find a second and they paid the price a few minutes before half-time when Sawyers conceded a foul just outside his own box. Whiteman delivered the free-kick over the wall towards the top left corner, central enough to wonder if Adam Davies could have got nearer.
It was all too familiar for Stoke, who had dominated against Barnsley in similar fashion but let the leads slip by giving away a set-piece in a similar position.
Stoke did the hard work well again at the start of the second half to get into decent positions without being able to deliver the final blow. There was a splitting slide-rule pass from Sawyers to give Smith two bites of the cherry to deliver a cross, for example.
But they were creating their own problems at the other end with Davies playing short goal-kicks and Preston knowing he was going to play short goal-kicks. The home side had players lurking all around the area waiting to pounce – with Emil Riis lingering inside for one – and the pressure forced Stoke to occasionally rush a boot forward and be at their biggest risk of conceding.
But Stoke probably the more likely to go ahead – none more so than when Smith sent in a low cross that caused havoc in the six-yard box. Tymon pounced on the ball and did well to work space for himself to shoot before Iversen pulled a save out of the top drawer.
Vrancic, who had been finding pockets of space all evening, made way for Sam Clucas to keep up the momentum with fresh energy in the final 20 minutes – and Clucas almost scored with almost his first touch, sending a header too close to the keeper from a Tymon cross.
Brown couldn’t take advantage when he was sent through by Thompson, coming momentarily sideways rather than bursting forward. A fantastic well-hit cross-shot from Tymon was clawed away from goal by Iversen.
Stoke were seemingly finding an extra gear and the away fans behind the goal they were attacking appreciated the performance, finding their voice with a catalogue of mostly old songs – and stick for beleaguered referee John Brooks.
Why should you sign up?
In our daily Stoke City bulletin, we’ll be bringing you the latest breaking news, transfer features and comment pieces, as well as the key talking points for fans.
How do you sign up?
It’s easy and only takes seconds.
Simply type your email address into the box at the top of this article and hit sign up.
If you decide later that you no longer wish to receive the emails, simply follow the unsubscribe link in one of the newsletters – but we don’t think you’ll want to.
All you have to do is click here and punch your email. And what’s more, it’s absolutely free!
The travelling support had quite enough of the pernickety Leicestershire official and sarcastically wildly cheered any rare decision he gave in Stoke’s favour.
Tymon was a constant danger and one terrific cross after he had tormented right-back Sepp van den Berg was steered just wide of the right post by Surridge. He couldn’t quite get the finishing touch himself moments later when a cross from the right caused chaos.
So near, so far, which was the story of the night.