The ASB Premiership roars back into life after a mid-season break with the chase for playoff berths at a critical point.
Waikato FC confounded critics after notching back to back away wins over Manawatu and Otago but face a stern test when they host an undefeated Auckland City at Ngaruawahia's Centennial Park on Wednesday evening.
Auckland City sits in fourth place eight points adrift of table toppers Waitakere United but with two games in hand on the leading pack the navy blues are never far from trophy contention. Auckland is close to full strength with the only absentee striker Adam Dickinson who is overseas.
Coach Ramon Tribulietx believes the challenge ahead is more mental than physical.
"We have stopped training for 13 days although we gave the players a plan to keep up their fitness levels. Mentally, especially after a FIFA Club World Cup, it is difficult to reach the same levels in terms of motivation.
"But we will have to tune in very quickly as we have an intensive week ahead with two games on the road, which will help us re-gain our sharpness early," he said.
Waikato FC parted with former coach Declan Edge just four matches into the campaign but new boss Mark Cossey has worked wonders notching a 3-2 win over Manawatu and thumping Otago 6-1 in Dunedin.
A full round of ASB Premiership fixtures are scheduled for this weekend with Team Wellington entertaining defending champions Waitakere United at David Farrington Park on Saturday, while Canterbury United's showdown with Auckland City at ASB Football Park headlines Sunday's action.
Gone is Canterbury's nine match unbeaten run at home in regular season matches after a 3-1 defeat to Waitakere on December 16. The Dragons have been consistent playoff contenders under coach Keith Braithwaite but couldn't get a tougher opponent to kick off the new year.
Hawke's Bay United started the season with a hiss and a roar but face a tricky task when Waikato FC visits Bluewater Stadium in Napier on Sunday. A win for the Bay would boost their playoff chances but the visitors may be up against it with two tough matches with top four sides in the space of just five days.
YoungHeart Manawatu takes on fellow strugglers Otago United in the wooden spoon clash at Memorial Park in Palmerston North on Sunday at 2pm.