As the season enters its business end, teams at the wrong end of the table are desperate for points. One here, three there; picking up positive results is what will make or break a team for the future. It was very much the scenario for both Reading and Aston Villa on Saturday, both of whom began the day embroiled in a fight to secure their Premier League safety.
With Wigan securing a memorable FA Cup win away at Everton, the impetus was on both sides to secure maximum points as the 10 game hurdled final stretch began to emerge from the freezing mist of the festive period.
Having crashed out of both domestic cups, staving off the threat of relegation is firmly at the forefront of both Brian McDermott and Paul Lambert's, of Reading and Villa respectively, thoughts. As cliched as it sounds, Saturday at the Madejski Stadium was a six pointer, made all the more crucial with Queen's Park Rangers 3-1 win over Sunderland in one of only four 3pm kick-offs, it being FA Cup quarter final weekend after all.
The Royals had lost four of the five Premier League encounters between the two sides ahead of kick off and come 4.45, that record would become five from six. Regardless of the bright start from the hosts, Adam Le Fondre forcing Brad Guzan into action early on, Villa continuously exerted themselves over their rivals and the top flight class, evidenced by the fact that Christian Benteke's strike was the Villain's 1000th in their Premier League history, was clear for all of those to see.
Lambert's side haven't shown their top tiered experience as often as many a supporter would've hoped this season, but they ensured they did enough to clamber out of the bottom three and at the end the day just three points behind Sunderland.
From the moment Nathan Baker comically mishit into his own net following Hope Akpan's flick from Mikele Leigertwood's cross, the mental toughness played its part in their ability to draw level moments later, albeit fortuitously after Benteke saw his effort deflected past the hapless Stuart Taylor, much to the delight of the travelling Villa supporters.
It appeared as those both teams were happy to head into the interval content with the scores being level - it would've been a fair reflection on a relatively even first half - until a well worked spell of possession from the visitors culminated in Andreas Weimann picking out the returning Barry Bannan, the diminutive Scot deputising for the suspended Fabian Delph, to strike the post.
The ball spinning off the inside of the woodwork, Taylor did all he can to palm the ball away from danger, although it was clear to see Reading's third choice goalkeeper was making just his second Premier League appearance since 2008, having managed to pick out the unmarked Gabriel Agbonlahor to smash into the top corner - a finish Lambert described as “World Class” come the post-match press conference.
Reading huffed and they puffed and even saw a Noel Hunt goal ruled out for offside minutes after the restart - the correct decision I might like to add - but it wasn't enough and the defeat leaves the Royals three points from safety where, to be honest, they may well be staying between now and May.
Looking at the next two fixtures, McDermott's side take on both Manchester United and Arsenal, at Old Trafford and the Emirates Stadium respectively, which, with the way both teams are playing, are sure fire defeats in the eyes of many a Reading fan - McDermott himself all but admitted the same, insisting he'd rather focus on the position the club are in at the end of March with seven games to go rather than in the aftermath of the confidence sapping loss to Villa and nine remaining.
Bar a few individual moments of excellence - the determination of Leigertwood in the final third all but lead to Baker's own goal being a prime example - the difference in class was contrasting. Reading brought on Garath McClearly from the bench; Villa, N'Zogbia, sacrificed for the hugely impressive Yacouba Sylla in the starting XI.
The difference in ability, especially in comparison to a Villa side largely built upon young Championship and League 1 players, was particularly telling. The star quality ultimately played it's part - Benteke and Agbonlahor impressing throughout their time on the pitch - in the end result, but the strength in depth running through Lambert's squad ultimately dwarfs that of the players at the disposal to McDermott.
That isn't to say Villa are to be guaranteed a place in the Premier League next season; far from it in fact. Yes, the three points garnered at the Madejski will provide the vital confidence boost, necessary in the fight against relegation and ahead of the second six pointer in a week against QPR.
Yet, assembling a squad consisting of young Championship and League 1 players will inevitably play its part. The inexperience in the side has been noticeable on numerous occasions this season, with the team lacking a leader in the middle of the park.
The news that Stiliyan Petrov was diagnosed with acute leukaemia almost a year ago would understandably have left a ripple effect throughout the club, but without bringing in a midfielder of his ilk - Danny Murphy, for example, would've been an astute acquisition last summer - has left Villa without the experience that could've guided the team that has, on three separate occasions, seen Lambert field the lowest average aged starting XI this season; the youngest being a little under 23 years of age in the 2-2 draw with Swansea City on New Years Day.
And it will, ultimately, see the club succumb to the threat of relegation come May, unless a win can be secured over QPR next weekend. The R's, following the revelations regarding a trip to Dubai last week, have since picked up two Premier League wins, against fellow relegation fodder, and while the six points garnered may've left Harry Redknapp's side four points from safety; victory over Villa will take them to within a point of next weekend's opponents.
Saturday's victory over Reading would've buoyed the players and fans, fears of relegation remain rife within the club. Yet, while Villa can breathe a sigh of relief, for a week at least, the Royals should be worrying over their Premier League future with, it has to be said, the likelihood of returning to the Championship becoming more a realistic scenario with each passing game.