It's mid-week, and thoughts are turning already to the weekend's fixtures. These days, the avid football fan (or punter) can get fixtures, odds and previews of upcoming matches in any country or league of his choice. But this week, nowhere has a round of matches quite as climactic and significant as our own Dafabet Welsh Premier League.
For, despite numerous postponements threatening to disrupt the Welsh Premier League's plans for its decisive 22nd matchday, Saturday 16th January does, after all, see the final six games in the league's first phase fixtures all scheduled to run simultaneously, kicking off at 5.15pm. And the hard line taken by the league on rescheduling of the delayed games has been rewarded, as the make-up of the two second-phase groups is still at stake, with all to play for in the six matches. So let's take a look at the action in store, and the possible outcomes.
The most significant battle at this point of the season always surrounds the middle of the table: for everyone would prefer to be in the top six when the league splits into two after this weekend, free from relegation concerns and able to concentrate instead on trying to secure a lucrative adventure in Europe in July. The reality is that two places in the top six are still up for grabs, with five clubs going into this match-day hoping to occupy one of them when the final whistles sound just after 7pm on Saturday.
The five clubs whose fates, for the next three months at least, will be decided by the final round of games are Gap Connah's Quay, Newtown, Carmarthen Town, Aberystwyth Town and Bangor City - and that's the order in which they currently stand.
For Gap Connah's Quay and Newtown, the task is clear: win on Saturday and they will finish 'above the line' and qualify for the top six 'Championship Conference'. In fact, depending on results elsewhere, a draw might be enough for one or both of these clubs.
But Gap Connah's Quay face the stiffest test of all this week, facing likely champions The New Saints, and may have to rely on other results if they are to get the desired outcome this week. TNS as ever are odds-on to win at the Deeside Stadium, but just a point will almost certainly do for the Nomads and the league sponsors are offering 17/4 on the draw here.
Newtown's visit to Park Avenue, Aberystwyth on Saturday, looks less daunting - Aber's recent home form is very poor - but the Robins themselves are on a bad run, with just one win in seven games, and just a two-goal victory for the Seasiders will be enough for the sides to swap places; the margins are indeed very tight.
Carmarthen Town, entertaining lowly Rhyl on Saturday, have every reason to hope they can profit from slip-ups by those above them and jump into the top six: they sit only two points behind Newtown and Gap Connah's Quay, and should both lose, the Old Gold will occupy fifth place in the table on Saturday evening. Carmarthen are expected to do what they need to, whether it proves tro be enough or not. But the odds on a home win here aren't particularly attractive.
Bangor City, like Aberystwyth Town, need everything to fall right for them if they are to leap from ninth into the top six. They have to beat bottom club Haverfordwest County for a start, and hope Gap Connah's Quay, Newtown and Carmarthen Town all lose. In fact, even that combination of results might not suffice - they may need the margins of victory and defeat to be large enough to give them a superior goal difference. But it's not inconceivable that Gap will concede a few goals to TNS, nor that Bangor can score a few against their west Wales visitors.
The two remaining games, also taking place on Saturday evening, will not have such an immediate and significant impact as the four that will decide who finishes above and below the line in the 'split' table, but the points on offer remain important for the four clubs involved in the longer term quest for honours, European places and survival this season:
Indeed, in any other week, the Bala Town v MBi Llandudno clash at Maes Tegid would have taken centre stage, involving as it does the clubs disputing second place in the table. A win for Alan Morgan's Llandudno side would see them leap-frog the Lakesiders into second place, but Bala held them 0-0 at Maesdu Park earlier in the season and are hard to beat on their own ground, as Haverfordwest found out last weekend. Llandudno, however, actually have a slightly better record away from their 3G pitch, with six wins from ten, and recently proved they can grind out results on heavy grass surfaces with a battling win at Carmarthen in December. Although Bala start favourites here, the odds on an honourable draw look more enticing.
The sixth match on Saturday won't actually see anybody move up or down in the table, but both Port Talbot Town and Airbus UK Broughton need the points on offer for very different reasons. Struggling Port Talbot need to put as much daylight as they can between themselves and the bottom two, but with only two wins from ten games at the GenQuip Stadium, and memories of a 2-0 defeat at the Airfield in the reverse fixture earlier in the season, confidence can't be high in the Steelmen's camp. However, they did end a miserable six-game winless run at Aberystwyth on Sunday and will hope to take the momentum into Saturday's game.
The Wingmakers need the three points to stay in touch with the top three, for Bala and Llandudno currently lead them by four and three points respectively. With just ten second phase games to come after this week, and no easy games in the top six, Airbus need three points from this fixture to boost their hopes of another European campaign in the Europa League this summer.
Of course, between now and the weekend games, everyone will be looking for their 'Bet of the Day'. It could be anywhere, but if forced to choose one in Wales, I might just go for the attractive odds on Gap Connahs Quay to get the point they need against TNS, and seal their place in the top six for the rest of the season.
With six intriguing games, riddled with question marks over current form, and with so many possible outcomes on Saturday night, the Welsh Premier League officials couldn't really have wished for a better finale to phase 1, could they ?