With Jack Grealish talk swirling around Manchester City, two wingers at either end of their careers made a strong case that the Blues are not exactly short of talent in wide areas.
The Blues saw off Championship side Preston despite changing all 10 outfield players at half time, removing the seven first-team players who started the friendly at the CFA Stadium.
Riyad Mahrez, one of the players whose position would come under added scrutiny should City get the move for England star Grealish over the line, made his mark with a stunning free-kick.
And 18-year-old Sam Edozie, playing on the left-sided berth Grealish usually occupies for Aston Villa, had a smart cameo in the second half, twice finding space to get in shots, one of them hitting the net, to show that there is plenty of talent thrusting through from the junior ranks as well.
But the game finished under a dark cloud as 18-year-old keeper Ciaran Slicker – who had only been on for 20 minutes – collided with Tom Bayliss and after extensive treatment on the pitch had to be carried off on a stretcher.
The first half looked exactly what it was – an exercise in trying to get rusty limbs and dormant football brains functioning again after a summer off, however short that may have been.
City in particular were under-cooked, with only Ben Mendy, Fernandinho and Mahrez from the starting XI having a solid week of work under their belts.
The shortage of senior players meant that Pep Guardiola drafted in Zack Steffen, Ruben Dias, Joao Cancelo and Nathan Ake into the team, even though they only returned to training the day before.
Dias was a surprise, in particular, as there seems to be no let-up – he has already played 41 games in 2021, having been a
Fans hoping to see Liam Delap and Tommy Doyle appear to have been thwarted by the Covid outbreak which forced closure of the academy building and meant the junior players – including Delap and Doyle – had to spend the last week isolating.
A host of academy starlets were drafted into the 25-man squad, but they have also only had one day back with their teammates after spending the previous week at home, following personal training programmes.
All that rustiness made for a disjointed opening against Championship opposition.
Ben Knight – another of the stars of last season’s Premier League 2 champions – was given the central attacking role in the absence of Delap, but he found it tough going against two seasoned, powerful centre backs.
Of course, no fans were present, plans to have a crowd in being shelved in a show of caution following the outbreak a fortnight ago, but those watching a live stream will have been disappointed not to see Delap, who smashed the under-23 competition’s goalscoring record last season.
That earned him a promotion to Guardiola’s first-team squad for the coming campaign, and it must have been frustrating for him, and Doyle, not to get a chance.
But the other youngster expected to make the same step into the first team squad, Cole Palmer, did start – and it was his close control and persistence that earned City the opener.
Picking the ball up in the box, the Wythenshawe teenager was surrounded by three or four green shirts, with no realistic passing option. He kept the ball close as tackles snapped in, roving out of the box before one challenge was too rash, and the Blues had a free-kick, 20 yards out.
Whether it’s PSG in the Champions League semi-final or PNE in a preseason friendly, it all comes the same to the Algeria star, who was on fire last season.
He whipped the ball over the defensive wall and it was past keeper Connor Ripley before he could move, to put City one up after 25 minutes.
With Fernandinho utterly bossing midfield, and an experienced back four behind him, City were rarely troubled, and Zack Steffen made light of his lack of practice to sprint out and slide tackle Tom Barkhuizen when the Lilywhites finally did threaten.
The fact that this was a fitness exercise was underlined by the fact that Guardiola subbed all ten outfield players at half-time.
That meant that, Steffen apart, the second half team had a grand total of seven first-team appearances between them – Patrick Roberts with three, Claudio Gomes two and Philippe Sandler two.
The kids had a real go in the second half, with James McAtee’s slick pass giving Sam Edozie a chance that Ripley needed two attempts to grab – in fact they looked sharper without the first-teamers!
They doubled the lead when James McAtee, the Salfordian midfielder complimented by Guardiola last season, beautifully disguised a little clipped pass and this time Edozie lashed the chance beyond Ripley.
The game was marred by what was a worrying injury to City reserve keeper Ciaran Slicker, who had only been on the field for 20 minutes when he fell awkwardly after a collision with Tom Bayliss.
He lay prone for ten minutes as medics worked on him, before he was stretchered off, with Steffen returning to action to see the game out