Preston North End manager Alex Neil was correct in his pre-match chat when forecasting that his side were facing Cardiff City and not Real Madrid.
The Welsh outfit’s super start to the season – five wins and a draw – had some fearing their visit to Deepdale.
While acknowledging those opening results, Neil was also at pains to point out that this is the Championship and everyone is capable of beating each other – hence his line in Monday’s press conference ‘it is Cardiff City we are playing, not Real Madrid’.
So it proved as North End clipped the Bluebirds’ wings in some style, scoring three fine goals.
Josh Harrop and Sean Maguire found the net before Alan Browne upstaged them all with a finish anyone in a Madrid shirt would have been proud of.
When a shanked clearance from visiting goalkeeper Neil Etheridge fell to him in the centre-circle, Browne returned it first-time over him and into the net.
Although we are only in September, I suspect it will be in the voting for goal of the season in eight months time.
The Lilywhites were fully deserving of the victory, the scoreline tells you that.
Harrop’s first goal in PNE shirt set the ball rolling late in the first half, his free-kick from more than 25 yards finding the bottom corner.
It was a lead doubled in the 70th minute as Maguire danced past a couple of challenges before finding the net from a tight angle.
Step forward Browne to steal the show and cap a fine performance in the engine room.
Neil had made three changes to the side which had drawn with Barnsley last Saturday, Harrop, Ben Davies and John Welsh coming into the starting XI.
It was Welsh’s first start since last October, his first-team return having come as a substitute in the Barnsley game.
North End were in their usual 4-2-3-1 system, Harrop playing the No.10 role behind Jordan Hugill, with Maguire on the right and Tom Barkhuizen down the left.
The first-half performance from the home side was bright to say the least – even brighter than Cardiff’s luminous green shirts.
Maguire’s early low shot was spilled by Etheridge, while Paul Huntington’s free-kick was headed on by Hugill to find Josh Earl on the left of the box, his cross cleared out of the six-yard box.
In the 11th minute, Maguire’s pass released Hugill down the left channel, the striker getting into the box and getting away a low angled drive which Etheridge dived to palm away – Maguire’s follow-up blocked at the far post.
Cardiff had a couple of chances, Kenneth Zohore shooting wide from outside the box, then a Joe Ralls effort hit Davies and looped behind for a corner.
At the other end, Davies connected with a Harrop corner but sent a header just wide of the back post.
Harrop gave North End the lead seven minutes before the interval with a quality finish.
When Sol Bamba went over the top of Hugill as they challenged in the air, referee Oliver Langford awarded a free-kick 25 yards out to the left of goal.
Harrop gave himself a good run up and hit it right-footed, the free-kick staying low as he flashed past the wall and nestled into the far bottom corner of the net.
Chances followed in quick succession for PNE, with Hugill lifting a shot too high from the edge of the box and then Maguire headed straight at the keeper after meeting Barkhuizen’s cross.
In the run-up to half-time, Harrop sent a 20-yard shot too high after Maguire’s industry had carved out the opening.
A minute into added-on time at the end of the first period, Aron Gunnarsson’s long throw-in bounced through to Bamba unmarked in the box but he could only poke a weak shot at Chris Maxwell.
A swift attack through midfield saw Preston go close to stretching their advantage in the 53rd minute, Browne winning a challenge in the centre-circle to start it off.
Harrop played it to Barkhuizen who slipped a pass to Darnell Fisher in the box, the right-back checking inside and hitting a low shot which Etheridge got down to save.
With an hour played, Huntington put a header too high after getting on the end of Harrop’s corner.
Two minutes later Hugill chased the ball out to the left-wing and sent over a fine cross which found Barkhuizen, but the winger put his header the wrong side of the far post.
PNE’s second goal arrived in the 70th minute, Maguire’s persistence paying off in abundance.
Barkhuizen won possession and slipped a pass through the defence to find Maguire just inside the box.
The Irishman skipped past a couple of tackles as he tried to dig the ball out of his feet and get a shot away, before finding the net with a shot between the keeper and near post from quite a tight angle.
Nine minutes later, Browne stole the limelight with an early contender for goal of the season.
Etheridge shanked a kicked clearance on the edge of his box, the ball falling to Browne in the centre-circle who lifted a first-time shot goalwards and over the back-pedalling keeper who flapped at it on the line but couldn’t prevent it going in.
PNE: Maxwell, Fisher (Woods 80), Huntington, Davies, Earl, Welsh, Browne (Gallagher 86), Barkhuizen, Maguire (Horgan 86), Harrop, Hugill. Subs (not used): Spurr, Mavididi, Robinson, Hudson.
Cardiff: Etheridge, Peltier, Morrison, Bamba, Bennett, Ralls, Gunnarssson, Mendez-Laing, Damour (Tomlin 63), Hoilett (Feeney 63), Zohore (Ward 79). Subs (not used): Ecuele-Manga, Richards, Bryson, Murphy.
Referee: Oliver Langford (West Midlands)
Attendance: 10,796 (363 away)