Final Score: Preston North End 1 Middlesbrough 3
IN similar monsoon-like conditions to those gripping the North-East, Middlesbrough avoided an embarrassing slip in the Capital One Cup last night.
As the relentless rain poured down at Deepdale, the Championship's Boro kept their nerve to move in to the fourth round courtesy of a goal each from Emmanuel Ledesma, Merouane Zemmama and Richie Smallwood.
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After taking a two-goal lead inside five first half minutes, Middlesbrough allowed Preston North End to give themselves hope with a Jack King strike five minutes before half-time.
There were a few attacks after the break from the League One outfit, but then just when Preston were at their best, Smallwood pounced to give Middlesbrough the breathing space they required.
Despite the constant downpours in Lancashire, the Preston groundstaff deserve an award for not just getting the game on, but ensuring the sodden surface stood up to the rain. It actually made for a decent encounter.
Boro boss Tony Mowbray had promised to make changes and he made a full team of them. As well as protecting a few players with niggles, his selection was done with Saturday's visit of Leicester City in mind.
After the strains of three matches inside six days ending with last Friday's win over Blackburn, a cup tie against lower league opposition presented him with an opportunity to put his squad to use.
There was a promising debut for Swiss goalkeeper Jayson Leutwiler and a satisfying first match in more than a year for Stuart Parnaby, who pulled on a Boro shirt for the first time since April 2007.
Given the atrocious conditions, the new-look team should have found it more difficult than it actually was. Even before they took control with their early goals, Middlesbrough could have been ahead.
Julio Arca had chipped over the bar, Halliday had forced goalkeeper Steve Simonsen in to a one-handed saved and Nicky Bailey had seen a header stopped on the line.
All of those before Ledesma found the net, however fortunately. Andy Halliday did his best to poke Ledesma's corner into the net, but it appeared that the ball had already crossed the line direct from the flag kick after it had hit the far post.
That opener arrived in the 13th minute and less than five minutes later Middlesbrough had a second. This time Smallwood's lay-off invited Zemmama to run on to it and strike a lowly driven right-foot shot from 25 yards inside Simonsen's bottom corner.
Instead of building on that, Middlesbrough slowed up. Preston, with nothing to lose, started to play with more freedom and caused their Championship opponents problems.
There had been a few scares and then, five minutes before the break and after Ledesma had forced Simonsen in to terrific low save at the other end, North End got themselves back in to the tie.
Lively midfielder Nicky Wroe got things rolling in front of the Preston defence. Right-winger David Amoo then laid on the delightful through pass for King to power beyond Leutwiler with a first time shot.
After the restart Middlesbrough looked as if they had taken the sting out of Preston's advances. Yet, with no danger to Simonsen's goal, the door was open for the equaliser.
And, ten minutes in to the second half, had Amoo done better with the header he flicked over the bar from Stuart Beavon's cross standing eight yards out then the score would have been level.
There was also an excellent Joel Byrom drive from distance, but it curled away from the post instead of towards it.
Leutwiler had a relatively quiet night until after Boro's third. The unfamiliar back four in front of him, however, had it far more difficult and more often than not they stayed strong when Preston moved forward intently.
The performances of the defence in the driving rain were rewarded just after the hour when Middlesbrough got the crucial third goal at a time when an equaliser seemed likely.
Former Newcastle defender Paul Huntington was caught out in possession. Zemmama chipped a cross that was deflected off the defender and spilled by Simonsen before Smallwood forced the loose ball over the line.
Leutwiler's first key moment was a save to his left to deny King a second, but then he made a fine double save after Bailey had made a fantastic block to deny Beavon.
On a night when other pitches might not have been up to staging a match, Middlesbrough will be relieved this one got the go-ahead - with a place in the last-16 secured.