Never has the clock ticked faster in football. With matches coming every three or four days, heroes will be made and fates will be decided in the blink of an eye. No relegation battle has ever been more suffocating, and time is running out at relentless speed for Barnsley and Wigan Athletic.
For Wigan, of course, this period is about much more than Championship relegation. The club is in administration, the players are not receiving their full salaries, 75 members of staff have been made redundant, and the future is very uncertain.
On the pitch, the team are facing a relegation battle blind. With their 12-point deduction for entering administration being appealed against, they do not know if their run of form since the season’s restart has put them well clear of the drop or merely given them a chance to avoid it.
For manager Paul Cook’s part, they are assuming the latter and continuing to fight. After their 1-0 win over Queens Park Rangers at the DW Stadium on Wednesday, a fourth win in five games, Cook told BBC Sport: “A defeat would have flattened this town. We would have gone out with a whimper. But we are not relegated yet. We are still fighting.”
A side in relegation trouble is often described as facing ‘adversity’, but this club knows what that really is right now, and will use it to their advantage as they attempt to work a miracle on the field.
Because the deduction, if applicable, will not be made until the season’s conclusion, Wigan are currently in mid-table harmony. Cook will see a different table: Wigan will be joint-bottom, ahead of Luton Town on goal difference; one point behind the side they visit next, Barnsley; and four points behind the nearest team they can overtake to avoid the drop, Hull City.
In that context, this match is the biggest of the season for both teams. A win for Wigan and, depending on results elsewhere, they could be within three points of five different teams with that deduction applied. With Hull and Charlton Athletic in the two games after, they will have a very good chance.
The maths are a little simpler for Barnsley, not that it makes it any easier to digest. With four games left they are four points behind, after only picking up one point from a performance that merited all three at Luton on Tuesday. Their final three fixtures are daunting, against Leeds United, Nottingham Forest and Brentford. They will not mathematically be relegated this weekend if they lose, but they can certainly bid their farewell to the Championship.
Barnsley boss Gerhard Struber reported a clean bill of health ahead of this clash. Midfielder Romal Palmer is sidelined for the rest of the season with a knee injury, while defender Bambo Diaby remains suspended.
Forward Joe Garner is still banned for Wigan following his red card at Brentford last weekend. Leon Balogun limped off with a groin injury in that game and missed QPR, while Michael Jacobs and Anthony Pilkington have also been absent.
Kieffer Moore, who scored the winning goal against QPR in midweek, will be making a return to Oakwell for the first time since leaving Barnsley to join the Latics last summer.
What the managers have said
Reds chief Struber is in no doubt as to the importance of this fixture, but emphasised the belief that he had in his players.
“This is a game we have to win,” he said. “It’s maybe the most important game of the season. We can’t pretend otherwise. But we have the quality.
“We have played with big resilience, particularly my central defenders like Sole (Michael Sollbauer) and Mads (Andersen). But they look forward to that, they want the fight. They can perform in every single game. My captain Alex Mowatt can play a special game each time, he’s in a real fighting mood.
“I think we have the right quality in forward areas, I trust my strikers. But it’s a pressurised situation right now and I think that’s shown in the last games.
“I hope Cauley Woodrow, Conor Chaplin and Jacob Brown can do it for us this weekend. I trust in them, and I think Saturday they are going to be ready to show this.”
Times are tough for Wigan but after their victory on Wednesday, Cook stressed that matters on the field were still in their own hands if they can continue their form.
"We've been written off so many times with getting beat, conceding late goals, we couldn't win away,” he said.
“Today we've got four games to go and the reality is that if we keep winning football games, we'll be in this division and that's what we've got to concentrate on."
There was nothing to separate these sides when they met back in August, when neither side could find the target in a goalless draw that finished with Ben Williams being shown a red card.
Wigan are unbeaten in their past three against Barnsley, the last Reds win coming in 2016 with a final-day 4-1 win that secured a League One play-off spot.