Baird's crucial derby
'The next month is very important - but Basingstoke will be just as difficult as the teams at the top'
By Wendy Gee -
EASTLEIGH manager Ian Baird views tomorrow's trip to tenth-placed Basingstoke as more than just a prelude to 'bigger' challenges ahead.
With just 11 weeks of the season remaining, the seventh-placed Spitfires still have 19 league games to play in their quest for promotion from the Blue Square Bet South.
Their six remaining February games include tough assignments at home to leaders Braintree next Saturday (February 19) and second-placed Farnborough on Monday, February 28.
But having seen his side humbled 1-0 by Basingstoke at the Silverlake in October, Baird knows better than to take tomorrow's game lightly.
"The next month is very important because we're playing a lot of sides in and around us," he said.
"But I see Basingstoke as being just as difficult as Braintree, Dover, Farnborough, Chelmsford and Bromley.
"We conceded after ten minutes against them at our place and we weren't good enough to break them down.
"Basingstoke have had some good results, like their 3-2 win over Dover last Saturday, and some poor results like losing 4-0 at Chelmsford on Monday.
"But they've got a good manager in Frank Gray and we know it's going to be difficult."
The Spitfires can travel in confident mood after putting Saturday's FA Trophy nightmare behind them with a 2-2 draw at fourth-placed Ebbsfleet on Tuesday.
Baird's side have taken some flak for losing 3-1 to lower league Chasetown in the Trophy but, as Ebbsfleet boss Liam Daish acknowledged, they are a force to be reckoned with in the Conference South.
"Eastleigh were big, strong, physical and put good deliveries into the box," said the former Birmingham defender. "They had decent individuals who could hurt us, so it was a hard-fought game.
"Both sides went at it hammer and tongs.
"It was hard but fair and both sides showed they are amongst the better teams in this division."
Baird agreed: "Ebbsfleet are the best side we've played. They've got a Conference background, a Conference set-up and Conference players. They'll be there or thereabouts. But we can go to Basingstoke feeling more than confident.
"We've got the second best defensive record in the league, even though I'm still not happy with the way we're defending, and we've scored 29 goals in our last 13 league games."
Although leaders Braintree are ten points clear, Baird says the title race is not over yet.
"If you go back a couple of seasons, AFC Wimbledon were about ten points clear at this stage, but they nearly got caught before ourselves and Chelmsford fell away at the end," he said.
"There's still all to play for, but I'd like to be in Braintree's shoes, that's for sure."
Ross Bottomley (knee/thigh), Warren Goodhind (hamstring) and Richard Gillespie (hip) are almost certainly out tomorrow.
However, there's a chance goalkeeper Gareth Barfoot could challenge Jason Matthews for the gloves after making a quicker than expected recovery from an adductor muscle problem.
Left-back Luke Byles, shown a straight red card against Chasetown, will miss the Braintree, Dover and Maidenhead matches through suspension.