SOUTH Cheshire rivals Alsager Town and Nantwich Town go head-to-head tonight in a North West Counties League derby at the Town Ground (7.45).
The teams are separated by eight places in the Division One table, but although Nantwich have a six-point advantage, Alsager have three games in hand.
Alsager boss Greg Clowes will be looking for his men to bounce back after a disappointing 3-2 home defeat by Bacup Borough on Saturday.
Clowes branded his side's performance 'pathetic' as they trailed 3-0 at the interval before goals from Will Hurley and Gareth Rowe put them back in the hunt.
Alsager enjoyed better fortune at St Helens last Tuesday night when an Andy Kinsey brace gave them a 2-1 win.
Clowes will be without Paul Ireland, who has joined former team-mate Matt Gregory at Warrington Town but has plenty of competition for places with Steve Grocott and Karl Bayley back after recent injuries.
While Alsager will be looking to the firepower of Kinsey, Nantwich also boast a 14-goal marksman in Wes Wilkinson. But it is at the other end of the field that player-manager Nigel Gleghorn believes his side have made their biggest improvement in recent weeks.
One key factor has been the signing of former Crewe Alexandra and Barnsley defender Steve Davis.
Now 38, the centre-back has joined Nantwich after a short spell as manager of Northwich Victoria, and his experience has proved invaluable with the Dabbers unbeaten in three matches since his arrival.
'Steve is very experienced and we've looked a more solid side since he arrived,' he said. 'It has also allowed me to get further forward and play in midfield alongside Anthony Buckle. And the triangle of Steve, Anthony and myself has around 110 years of experience to call upon!'
Other arrivals at Jackson Avenue in recent weeks have been Kidsgrove striker Tim Alexander and winger Jamie Phoenix.
Gleghorn said: 'Jamie's signing has given everyone at the club a lift. He has been affected by attitude problems in the past when he had spells at Liverpool's Academy and at Bolton, but we're giving him a second chance and if he shows the right attitude, I am convinced he will get back into League football.'
Phoenix returns to the squad after missing Saturday's 1-1 draw at Skelmersdale due to a family bereavement, while fellow wide man Danny Griggs is also back in contention after being unavailable at the weekend.
Defender Martin Packham is suspended and Lyndon Hall and Steve Jardine are still sidelined by injury.
Gleghorn knows that Alsager will give his men a tough test.
'Last season's games showed that they have a strong work ethic and a few handy players who can get them a goal, so we know it will be difficult. But I do think we have shown more mettle in the last few games and looked more solid from front to back, and if we can match them physically, I think we have enough players who can win us the game.' Although Gleghorn was disappointed to drop points on Saturday, he was not too downhearted.
Skelmersdale goalkeeper Robbie Hol-croft was named man-of-the-match after making a string of fine saves, most notably from two Mark Gardiner pile-drivers.
In the 37th minute, and against the run of play, Skem's Stuart Rudd was harshly judged to have been tripped by Adam Vickers in the box.
But remarkably, Rudd, the NWCL's top scorer with 23 in all competitions, fired straight at Stuart Heeps for his sixth successive miss from the penalty spot.
Buoyed by the reprieve, the Dabbers came out on the attack after the restart and Vernum Rowland hit the upright before they went ahead in the 57th minute.
Another shot from Rowland was blocked on the line and Gleghorn followed up to tap home.
Skelmersdale rallied right away and were level within two minutes when Rudd's 20-yard free-kick took a fortunate deflection off the wall and fell into the path of Michael Cole, who made no mistake.
Even so, Nantwich would have taken all three points but for Holcroft's acrobatics in the last 10 minutes as he denied Wes Wilkinson and Maguire with superb saves.
'We need to win those sort of games if we are to improve on last season's topsix position, but by and large I was happy with the overall work rate and the performance.' Both Town teams have home dates in the second round of the FA Vase on Saturday. Nantwich entertain Grosvenor Park while Alsager host Leamington.
Barring a replay, Nantwich will entertain Ramsbottom United next Tuesday (7.45pm).
Alsager Town (from): Powner; Hurley, Fraser, Elks, Brotherton; Grocott, Drummond, Verow, Espley, Barber, Clack, McKenzie; Bayley, Kinsey.
Nantwich Town (from): Heeps; Vickers, Davis, Maguire, Gardiner; Griggs, Buckle, Lawton, Gleghorn, Phoenix, Rowland, Wilkinson, Melling, Dawson, Parkinson, Alexander.