Linfield boss David Jeffrey believes Portadown deserve to be touted as genuine title challengers this season.
The Ports remain in the slipstream of the leaders as the race for the Gibson Cup intensifies.
Ronnie McFall’s side are seven points behind Linfield who sit top, but they could cut that gap to just four if they can claim victory at Windsor Park on Saturday afternoon.
It is the latest intriguing showdown in the Danske Bank Premiership, and one that may go some way to determining Portadown’s title ambitions this season.
The Shamrock Park side were once top of the table, but a mini-slump saw them slowly spiral down the standings.
The public fall-out between McFall and talismanic striker Kevin Braniff also cast some doubt on their credentials.
But since Braniff was transfer-listed last month the Ports have gone on a mesmerising five-game unbeaten run.
And for Blues chief Jeffrey, there is little doubt the Mid-Ulster Reds have earned every respect.
“Portadown are firmly in the title mix,” Jeffrey said.
“They did all their transfer business last year and they signed very well – they have an excellent squad.
“I laugh sometimes when I see people questioning whether the time has come for Ronnie to step aside – goodness gracious me.
“The big man is as hungry as ever.
“We know they are firmly in the mix and they will be there for the duration of the season. That’s what makes Saturday’s game so tough.”
Linfield’s own title aspirations will be tested over the next fortnight.
Saturday’s home clash with Portadown is followed by massive derby showdown with Glentoran at the Oval.
Jeffrey’s recent YouTube gaffe – where he was caught on camera appearing to mock the Glens over transfer target Jimmy Callacher – has added plenty of spice to the Boxing Day showdown.
Jeffrey accepts the festive season will be a stern test, but insists his only focus is on tomorrow’s game with Portadown.
“The next two games are massive,” he added.
“Portadown have gone on a great run after a wee period where they were in the doldrums.
“We won’t look any further than Portadown, that is a sizeable task and challenge.
“Since the night they were beaten on television by Glenavon, they have really responded. It is a tough test.”
The Blues returned to the Premiership summit thanks to last week’s 3-0 win over Ballinamallard – not that Jeffrey is paying too much attention to his side’s table-topping antics.
“It counts for nothing at this stage of the season, but when you reflect back to the time when we were bottom, the players have put in an incredible response,” he said.
“But there is a long way to go with plenty of twists and turns. Nothing is handed out in the middle of December – we know that only too well.”