WITH the 2012 Westmeath SFC group stages reaching a critical juncture this weekend, both Athlone and Castledaly have major work to do.
Reigning champions Garrycastle and Tyrrellspass (both on five points from three games) look likely to claim the first two knockout places from Division A, with Castledaly currently vying for third position (which would put them into the quarter-finals).
They're not alone in their quest though, as Coralstown-Kinnegad and Saturday's opponents, Bunbrosna (Cusack Park, 5.30pm), are very much in contention too.
While eventually beaten by Tyrrellspass in their last championship outing, Castledaly could take huge heart from that game, as Derek Heavin's charges were involved in the undisputed game of this year's senior championship to date.
The 2008 champions raced into a six-point lead by the end of the first quarter, but a combination of vastly experienced campaigners, Martin Flanagan and Denis Glennon, eventually saw Tyrrellspass overhaul their opponents to take the two points.
Brendan Kelly, who notched three points for Castledaly in that entertaining encounter (as did Lorcan Dolan, with Alan Stone registering six), and Kelly this week admitted it's time for Castledaly to deliver.
"I think we were a bit unlucky in the last couple of games, but we've found it difficult in the second half of matches. I don't really know why, but we were very good against Tyrrellspass for 45 minutes, but then just faded. It's a problem for us at the minute, and we're going to have to sort it quickly.
To be honest, it's unlike us because we're normally quite good in tight matches, but that's the way it's panned-out this year. Hopefully, that will change against Bunbrosna because we badly need the win," said Kelly (one of three brothers, including Adrian and Enda, to start against Tyrrellspass).
"We took some good scores against Tyrrellspass and can take a bit of heart from the performance. It was disappointing to lose in the end, but we're going to have to sustain our performance for longer against Bun'. They got a win last time out (against Killucan) and will be confident," he added.
Many observers feel that Castledaly - provided they overcome Bunbrosna - will be left in a straight qualification shoot-out against Coralstown-Kinnegad in the last group game. But a surprise win for Bunbrosna on Saturday would alter the race for third place, and Kelly refuses to look beyond this weekend.
"I suppose lots of people are looking ahead to the Coralstown-Kinnegad game, but our players won't. We believe our job is straightforward - we have to win our final two games. We've no other results or outcomes in our minds," said Brendan, who first cousins (Paul and MJ) also featured against Tyrrellspass.
Elsewhere in Division A, Garrycastle will be expected to seal their place in the knockout phase with victory over bottom-placed Killucan (Friday, Moate, 7.45pm), while Coralstown-Kinnegad - probably Castledaly's main rivals for a third-placed finish - encounter Tyrrellspass at Cusack Park on Saturday (7pm).
Garrycastle, though still without some key performers (including Dessie Dolan), have shown impressive strength-in-depth throughout the early stages of the championship, with wins over Castledaly and Coralstown-Kinnegad (since drawing the opening fixture with Tyrrellspass) placing them in a strong position.
Athlone battling to qualify
Meanwhile, Athlone are battling to stay alive in the race for quarter-final places from Division B.
A five-point loss to Maryland (who top the group with six points) last time out means Tom Coffey's troops still have much to do to reach the latter stages.
With both St Loman's and Mullingar Shamrocks (on four points) poised behind table-toppers Maryland, two points in this weekend's meeting with St Malachy's (Sunday, Tang, 7pm) is imperative for Athlone.
Defender Fergal Murray, who put in a good shift against Maryland, has described Sunday's game as "a must-win" for the Town side.
"We need to take positive results from our last two fixtures. Tom Coffey has freshened things up this year, and I think we've made good progress from last year, when we lost all our group games and needed to win a relegation play-off to stay at senior level. We had chances to win the last game (against Maryland), but didn't take them, but we're happy enough with how things have progressed this year.
"It could come down to the last group game against Mullingar Shamrocks (to finish in the top-three), and if that's the case we'll take that challenge head-on, but firstly we have to focus on St Malachy's. They got a good result in their last game (a draw with St Loman's), so they'll be confident. We've struggled against the so-called lesser teams in recent years, so we know it's going to be a tough battle on Sunday," said the former Westmeath defender.
The highlight of this weekend's Division B fixtures arguably takes place at Cusack Park on Sunday (7pm), when first-placed Maryland take on Mullingar Shamrocks.
Maryland, under Finbar Egan's command, have so far been impressive, amassing three straight wins against St Malachy's, The Downs and Athlone, while Shamrocks (beaten finalists the last two years) have so far lost to St Loman's and beat St Malachy's and The Downs.
However, their efforts have no doubt been hampered by the unavailability of injured duo Darragh Daly and Kieran Gavin, but they've recently been boosted by the return from the United States of Denis Corroon.
St Loman's also take on The Downs (Sunday, Cusack Park, 5.30pm) and will be expected to further boost their knockout credentials with a win.
Westmeath SFC Fixtures
Friday, August 3
Killucan v Garrycastle (Moate, 7.45pm).
Saturday, August 4
Castledaly v Bunbrosna (Cusack Park, 5.30pm); Coralstown/Kinnegad v Tyrrellspass (Cusack Park, 7pm).
Sunday, August 5
The Downs v St Loman's, Mullingar (Cusack Park, 5.30pm); Maryland v Mullingar Shamrocks (Cusack Park, 7pm); St Malachy's v Athlone (Tang, 7pm).