Stephen Baxter admits it will be “curtains” for Crusaders’ title hopes if they lose at Windsor Park on Tuesday.
The Crues trail league leaders Linfield by six points going into the titanic clash in south Belfast (7.45pm).
The Blues can also boast a precious game in hand over their cross-city rivals.
Baxter admits defeat could end his side’s hopes of claiming the Gibson Cup, despite there being a significant chunk of the season remaining.
“We are six points behind Linfield, and they have a game in hand. If we lose that then we are nine behind, with Linfield boasting a game in hand.
“You will end up running out of games, like we did two or three seasons ago when we were trying to chase Linfield down,” Baxter admitted.
“The mathematics show that if we lose on Tuesday, then I think it is curtains for us. That’s the reality.
“By the same token, we will play the game in front us and hopefully get a positive result.
“Windsor will be a tough place to go, even though our record there has been good recently.
“Linfield are a slick outfit, and have the cream of the crop. They have brilliant players from 1 to 25, so we know it is going to be a big challenge - but we are ready.”
Despite trailing Linfield by six points, Baxter insists Crusaders will approach the clash in positive mood.
“These are the challenges we love as a team. Going to Windsor in the middle of January, and with a title to chase, is great,” he said.
“If we keep competing in the top two or three, and win a trophy or two along the way, then that’s great.
“We are just trying to look after our business all of the time.
“We had a frustrating festive period. But we played Glentoran, Cliftonville and Portadown and drew all three. We dominated in all of them and could have won.
“Those three draws might be decent points along the way. We have to keep everyone fresh and see where it takes us.
“I can’t praise the boys enough, they work very hard.”
The Crues will welcome back influential skipper Colin Coates.
Coates missed the games against Dungannon Swifts and Crumlin Star with an ankle injury.
“Colin will be available. His ankle isn’t as bad as first feared,” Baxter said.
“He needed an injection, but he won’t need surgery which is great news for him.
“Hopefully he will be available for the run-in, and we will need him because he is a big player and character.”
Linfield boss David Jeffrey has described tonight’s showdown with Crusaders as a “massive clash”.
The Blues boss said: “I watched Crusaders against Dungannon and thought they were very impressive.
“They have built a very strong squad and it will be a big challenge for us. The last time we played they edged us out on penalties and I was pleased with that performance because I think we stood up to the physicality.”
Meanwhile, Linfield and Glentoran have lost out in the race to sign former Derry City midfielder Ruaidhri Higgins.
Higgins – who had been on the radar of both clubs – is set to join League of Ireland outfit Dundalk.