Sunderland 0 Preston North End 1: Nugent puts strong case for future in the top flight

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David Nugent, the Preston North End forward, may have denied Sunderland three valuable points in this keenly contested Championship fixture but his well-taken first-half winner could have enhanced the prospects of Roy Keane's team progressing beyond the third round of this season's FA Cup.

The England Under 21 international's third goal in as many games left Sunderland in mid-table, 10 points adrift of an automatic promotion place and requiring victory at Leicester City this afternoon to stay within touching distance of the play-off pack.

However, Nugent's smart header also served to remind a growing list of suitors of his considerable value as a proven goalscorer. The Liverpool-born player is being seen as a prime mover during this month's transfer window, and an offer in the region of £4m from Middlesbrough could persuade Preston to profit from the club's most prized asset ahead of Sunderland's FA Cup assignment at Deepdale next Saturday.

"I have no doubt he could score goals in the Premiership," said Sunderland's manager, Roy Keane, his pointed comment, plucked from the Sir Alex Ferguson manual of managerial mind games, serving to stoke the frenzied speculation surrounding Nugent's future. "He only needs one chance and he'll take it. That's what he did."

Keane knows Sunderland will be better placed to beat Preston for the first time this season - the Lancastrians completed a league double on Saturday - if Nugent realises his dream to play top-flight football in the next five days. The 21-year-old's 36th-minute goal was all about expert anticipation and cool confidence, attacking qualities a stuttering Stadium of Light strikeforce was sorely lacking.

"I love all the speculation and like big clubs looking at me," said Nugent, as he prepared for the visit of Derby County this afternoon. "I am confident I could play in the Premiership and Preston are in a great position to win promotion. We have never been in this position at this stage of the season and now we are there we want to stay there."

Sunderland travel to the Walkers Stadium with just two recognised senior defenders following injuries to the captain and centre-back Steve Caldwell and full-back Nyron Nosworthy.

"I have talked about us being down to the bare bones but this time I mean it," said Keane, who is also without Kenny Cunningham, Stephen Wright and Danny Collins. "It illustrates the fact that we need to strengthen during the transfer window."

Goal: Nugent (36) 0-1.

Sunderland (4-4-1-1): Ward; Whitehead, Varga, Caldwell (Nyatanga, 16), Nosworthy; Murphy, Leadbitter, Miller, Wallace (Brown, 67); Yorke (S Elliott, 46); Connolly. Substitutes not used: Fulop (gk), Hysen.

Preston North End (4-4-2): Nash; Alexander, Chilvers, St Ledger, Hill; Sedgewick, Miller, Davidson, Pugh; Ormerod (Anyinsah, 82), Nugent (Neal, 90). Substitutes not used: Lonergan, Wilson, McGrail.

Referee: C Foy (Merseyside).

Man of the match: Nugent.

Attendance: 30, 460.