ALSAGER and Nantwich warmed up for last night's derby with setbacks on the home front.
Although Alsager stretched their un-beaten run to 16 games, they were held at home by struggling Squires Gate who played for 75 minutes with 10 men.
Meanwhile, Nantwich's promotion hopes started to fade as they dropped points at Jackson Avenue for the second successive weekend, this time losing 2-0 to Skelmersdale.
Alsager were left shaking their heads after dominating Squires Gate from the moment Paul Paynter was dismissed for dangerous play.
But though they carved out wave after wave of attacks, the cutting edge was missing.
That was in no small way down to visiting keeper Peter Summerfield, who gave a hint of what was in store for the Alsager attackers when he produced a stunning save to deny Mark Parry in the early exchanges.
Ian Verow, Matt Gregory and Will Hurley had Town's best first-half chances once Gate were down to 10 men, but none could find a telling finish.
Andy Kinsey and Gareth Rowe were thwarted by Summerfield after the interval and Karl Bayley had another attempt scrambled off the line.
Rowe almost snatched it for Alsager in the closing stages when he headed an Alan Fraser cross goalwards, but Summerfield stretched to tip it over the bar and leave Alsager reflecting on what might have been.
Manager Greg Clowes said: 'Squires Gate made it very difficult for us but draws are not what we need if we are to get into the top four.'
Nantwich also had a tale of missed chances to recount as they slipped down to 13th spot.
Lee Thompson fired Skelmersdale ahead in the 12th minute when he drilled home a mis-hit shot from Stuart Rudd and the visitors wrapped up the points 10 minutes from time when the prolific Rudd slotted home his 34th goal of the season.
Between times the Dabbers created plenty of chances but could not put the ball in the back of the net.
Player-manager Nigel Gleghorn came closest with a curling free-kick which bounced back off the bar five minutes before the interval.
Gleghorn, Steve Jardine and Danny Griggs almost brought Nantwich back on terms before Rudd's strike settled the outcome.
'We played well but lacked a cutting edge,' admitted Gleghorn.
Nantwich face a real test of their credentials when they visit league lead-ers Clitheroe this Saturday, while Alsager are at Bacup Borough. The North West Counties League is unlikely to discover how many clubs will be promoted to the revamped UniBond League until May.
A recent meeting of the FA's National League Systems' committee rubberstamped the restructuring at the end of this season and set up working parties to prepare the way for the restruc-turing of the rest of the non-league Pyramid in 2007.
But exactly where clubs will be playing next season will not be announced until Monday, May 10 - more than a fortnight after Nantwich and Alsager are due to finish their seasons.