ALAN Pardew insists West Ham United's trip to Stoke City is key to the Club's Play-off hopes.
The Hammers trail Reading by four points and will have played the same number of games after the clash at the Britannia Stadium. By that time, Pards knows that the gap must be cut to one, but the Hammers boss warns it will be tough against the Potters.
"This is a key game," he confessed. "We always knew that this was likely to be a vital game, being our match in hand over the teams around us.
"The result at Millwall, and the fact that the teams above us are playing well makes it even more crucial.
"We have to win at Stoke to really put the pressure back on the teams above us. If we do that, and cut the gap to one, then we'll be right back in there.
"But it's going to be a very tough night. Everyone knows what's at stake, we just need to make sure we stay focused and be positive right from the first whistle.
"We need to really attack this game and get things going right from the kick-off. If we can get off to a good start and put some pressure on Stoke early on we'll have a good chance."
Despite the pressure of the game, Pards and his players are in optimistic mood as they travel to Stoke, steadfast in their belief that promotion remains a realistic target.
"We're still very optimistic about our chances of making the Play-offs," he assured. "The team is playing very well, we're unbeaten in six games and have won three out of our last four. That's not a bad record to have going into this stage of the season.
"We're not too disheartened about not winning at Millwall. It was always going to be a very hard game. They looked to slow the game down and there were areas of our performance that were very pleasing.
"Promotion has not been made difficult because we drew on Saturday. It's a tough task because we've dropped points earlier in the season that we shouldn't have.
"But we've still got a chance of making it and it's up to us to take that chance. It hasn't gone all our way this season, but there's still plenty to play for.
"We're in good heart and the belief in the squad is still high. We're focused on giving everything we've got at the Britannia Stadium and if we do then we've got a great chance of leaving with all three points."
Pards Looks For Vital Points