Preston North End continued their fine recent record at Deepdale with a convincing 3-0 win over Reading on Saturday afternoon.
Tom Barkhuizen and Daryl Horgan put the hosts two ahead in the latter stages of the first-half, before the former added his second shortly after the break – ensuring the promotion outsiders kept pace with the Championship’s top six.
Reading were perhaps the better side to begin with, although they could only muster speculative, long-range efforts from Lewis Grabban and Jordan Obita – with neither troubling PNE goalkeeper keeper Chris Maxwell.
The visitors looked ready to take control after the first 15 minutes, putting the North End defence under pressure as Maxwell flapped at a Gareth McCleary strike from distance before Tom Clarke crucially blocked a volley at the back-post from an unmarked Yann Kermorgant.
Jordan Mutch then hit a first-time effort wide of the far post while in space on the right but the hosts soon started to come to life.
The Royals would come to regret their missed chances as the Lilywhites ended the half in superb style, with Aiden McGeady’s shot – forcing Ali Al-Habsi to save at his near post – a warning sign arriving just before the half hour.
The hosts took the lead shortly after through Tom Barkhuizen’s sensational effort on 31 minutes. Ben Pearson’s sweeping pass down the right caught out Tyler Blackett, allowing Horgan to pull back for the ex-Morecambe man on the edge of the box as he curled into the far top corner.
Horgan and Barkhuizen reversed roles nine minutes later to double their side’s lead, with the former turning goalscorer. After a sensational run covering most of the pitch by the latter, the Irishman converted from close-range.
That put North End in a comfortable position at the break – which was soon improved upon after the interval. Barkhuizen grabbed his second just four minutes into the second-half after he made the most of Andy Boyle’s scuffed shot and netted with the most simple of tap-ins.
He tried his luck from distance for his hat-trick just before the hour, with his shot looping over the crossbar as the match began to peter out towards an inevitable PNE win.
Few chances followed in the closing moments of the second period, as Barkhuizen attracted a well-deserved standing ovation upon his 76th minute departure.
His influence proved to be the difference between the sides, as the home side recorded an emphatic 3-0 win over the Royals – with eight points now separating the two promotion contenders.
Preston North End: Maxwell; Clarke, Huntington, Boyle; Horgan (Browne, 61), Pearson, Johnson, Cunningham; Barkhuizen (Robinson, 76), Hugill (Beckford, 88), McGeady. Subs not used: Lindegaard, Makienok, Beckford, Spurr, May and Robinson.
Reading: Al-Habsi; Gunter, McShane, Van den Berg, Blackett; Swift, Kermorgant, Mutch (Williams, 33), Obita; McCleary, Grabban (Beerens, 77). Subs not used: Jaakkola, Evans, Beerens, Meite, Popa and Oxford.
Referee: Scott Duncan (Northumberland)
Attendance: 10,787 (513)