The stakes could hardly be higher for Stoke City as they resume action after a lockdown hibernation lasting 105 days.
Get it right over the last nine games and they could be challenging for the Premier League next season; but get it wrong and a League One promotion battle is the best they can hope for in 2020/21.
Stoke resume their season five places but only three points above the drop zone as they currently top a mini table of eight clubs which are, in all likelihood, the ones left battling against relegation.
In truth, all we are asking is for Stoke, as a team and as individuals, to play up to their potential more often than not over 32 days of action.
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Plenty of their rivals, meanwhile, will have to play well above themselves to be in with even a shout of staying up.
Stoke must also play three of their seven rivals – Middlesbrough (h), Wigan (a) and Barnsley (h) – in games two, three and four of those remaining nine.
So there really are no excuses.
And quite apart from the club’s fortunes, just about every single player individually has plenty to play for and plenty to prove.
Starting at the very back, JACK BUTLAND does not want `a Leicester’ moment like the one which cost points in the countdown towards Stoke’s last relegation two years ago.
Just one performance when it really counts, even one save at a critical moment, and he can erase the memory of his early-season wobbles and exit this season with the kind of reputation his talent merits.
At right back we have one of the keenest competitions of all between TOMMY SMITH and TOM EDWARDS.
Smith was enjoying his steadiest run in the side when lock down came and his experience should help him cope with whatever pressure awaits Stoke over the next month.
But he knows one bad game, certainly two on the bounce, and he could be handing his shirt back to Edwards who, hopefully, has used the past few months to take a step back and analyse just what he must do to re-claim sooner rather than later the place that was once his.
Over at left back we can safely assume that BRUNO MARTINS INDI will continue his valiant role of plugging the gap before a long-term option is surely recruited before the start of next season.
Little has been said about the Dutchman’s future, for once, so how ironic if the next transfer window did turn out to be his last at Stoke after four years on these shores.
At centre half there is a right old two-and-eight brewing as no fewer than five players will be hoping to make a name for themselves en route to Championship safety.
JAMES CHESTER has most to play for as he remains on a short-term contract and the jury, certainly in the wider world, would appear to remain out.
His brief is simple and in manager Michael O’Neill he clearly has a fan, but justifying a decent contract at the end of the season will require some sterling work between now and then.
Skipper RYAN SHAWCROSS is one heck of a fly in the ointment, however, after exploiting the lock down to rest up those niggly injuries once and for all, fingers crossed, and throw his hat firmly into the ring.
That may or may not be good news for DANNY BATTH, meanwhile, as he has previously formed a decent partnership with Shawcross, but O’Neill may prefer Shawcross or Batth, not Shawcross and Batth.
Waiting in the wings will be LIAM LINDSAY, who has done little to blot his copybook in O’Neill’s eyes, while NATHAN COLLINS may have to be patient, but not necessarily for the entire nine games.
No JOE ALLEN in midfield, of course, and that would appear to be good news for either JORDAN THOMPSON or JORDAN COUSINS.
Thompson is the better bet long term under a manager signing him in late January, but Cousins remains a heftier option, particularly away from home, and he may yet have the opportunity to go at least some way towards justifying the fanfare with which Nathan Jones announced his arrival last summer.
SAM CLUCAS is a shoo-in, of course, and some of his performances ahead of lockdown were veering dangerously close towards the masterful, while his form over the next nine games will determine whether the player-of-the-year trophy will be resting on his mantelpiece come the end of July.
The flanks are surely sorted with TOM INCE on the right and JAMES McCLEAN on the left, barring injury, as O’Neill has understandably leant towards their experience during such trying times.
Ince is a big-occasion player and watching him produce something special on one or two big occasions – not least those six-pointers against Middlesbrough, Barnsley or Wigan – will do no harm to his prospects of winning over the faithful.
McClean appears to have already done that, notwithstanding his social media own goals, and if he can combine telling moments with his customary endeavour then Clucas may have a worthy rival for that silverware.
Up front there is gold to be had for anyone able to bang in three or four match-winning goalscoring contributions en route to salvation.
TYRESE CAMPBELL has had plenty of time to reflect on a pretty whirlwind few months before lockdown and he must now consider himself a senior partner in this set up – one on which his team is relying pretty heavily for some goalmouth glory.
The early signs have been hugely encouraging, of course, and a significant contribution over the next nine games will catapult his name towards some rather mouthwatering and justifiable headlines.
SAM VOKES remains a potentially crucial option, from the start to wear down the opposition, or in the last 20 to out-muscle tired defences.
He also has the goals which have eluded the otherwise tidy contributions of LEE GREGORY who, given his name was being tossed around in January, may see the next few weeks as an audition for more than just Michael O’Neill.
And finally to NICK POWELL.
Whether playing just behind the front man or out wide, his approach and productivity has been huge since the turn of the year after answering his critics with a consistency many thought beyond him by now.
O’Neill’s man-management skills must take a bow here, but credit too for Powell after playing at long last like a man with a point to prove.
A point he still has to prove, just like Stoke City.