Middlesbrough face Aston Villa in the Championship at the weekend in a game where defeat could prove disastrous for Tony Pulis’ side.
A few weeks ago, Boro were still in with a chance of automatic promotion, but now, after three successive matches without a victory, they are 15 points behind second-placed Leeds United.
After the home defeat to Preston on Wednesday, the clash with Villa at the weekend is even more crucial.
Much like Preston, Boro’s opponents on Saturday are building some serious momentum and made it three wins on the bounce with a big three points against Nottingham Forest this week.
With Derby County and Bristol City not in action at the weekend, Villa can move into the top six with a win, but perhaps more worryingly for Middlesbrough, victory would see Dean Smith’s side move to within just a point of their opponents.
But it is not just Villa that Boro should be worried about, there are now so many other teams in the play-off mix – every side down to Sheffield Wednesday in eleventh will fancy their chances of finishing the season in the top-six.
Boro have now lost back-to-back games for the first time under Pulis and the sides below them in the table will sense their vulnerability – this could prove significant come the end of the season.
How the players respond will be key and it is imperative they bounce back with a good result against Villa – especially with leaders Norwich City coming to the Riverside after the international break.
To that point, the next few games are absolutely crucial and look set to define Boro’s season.
Something else that could work against Pulis’ team is that nearly all of their remaining opponents still have something to play for.
Take the next five games for example – Villa and Bristol City are in need of points to aid their own chances of finishing in the top six, while Norwich are battling for automatic promotion and Bolton are fighting for survival at the wrong end of the table.
It is only really Swansea City – currently 15th in the table, eleven points above the drop zone but nine outside the play-offs – who have nothing to play for.
If they fail to win at Villa Park on Saturday, Middlesbrough’s chances of finishing the season in the play-offs could be under serious threat – something that seemed almost unthinkable just a few weeks ago.