ANDY Preece admits Worcester City's play-off hopes are likely to be dead and buried if they lose to Stalybridge Celtic at St George's Lane tomorrow.

City are eight points adrift of fifth-placed Harrogate Town with nine games left following last Monday's surprise 2-0 home defeat to Moor Green.

With nine games remaining, City cannot afford another slip-up, although they will find it difficult re-asserting their play-off credentials against a Celtic side that player-manager Preece rates as the "best team" in Nationwide North.

"We are not going to chuck the towel in," said Preece. "But another defeat is going to leave us with a mountain to climb.

"Perhaps we can afford to lose one more game. But if we lose another, we would have to win every other game and that's a tall order."

Once Preece considers City's long-shot play-off challenge a bridge too far, opportunities will then be thrown out to his squad's younger players.

He added: "We are looking towards bringing in players and giving them an opportunity, if and when we have nothing really to play for.

"Whether we finish seventh or 14th in the league, it does not really matter. What is important is giving the younger players the chance to prove they are capable at this level and a chance to earn a contract for next season.

"If we get to the last six or seven games out of the running, they will get a chance, lads like Troy Wood, Gary Walker, Danny Hodnett and Shabir Khan. It is also a chance for Jai Stanley and Liam McDonald.

"It could be that we lose one or two games and drop a couple of positions, but the experience for them is invaluable."

In stark contrast to the dismal derby defeat to Moors, Preece is anticipating an open, attacking contest against Stalybridge, who are level on points with City.

Regarded as one of the pre-season promotion favourites, Celtic have not fulfilled top billing but they have a better play-off chance with three games in hand.

Preece said: "I'm looking forward to tomorrow. Stalybridge are possibly the best team in the league. Stafford are top, but I think these are probably the best on their day if everybody is on top form.

"It will be a good challenge and they have some good strikers in Jody Banim, Neil Prince and Lee Ellington. It will be a good test for us.

"I'll be interested to see how Stalybridge are going to play, because they need to win. I'm pretty sure Moor Green don't think they have a chance of getting into the play-offs.

"The way they played probably showed that. A point would have been great for them.

"But Stalybridge think they have a chance. It will be interesting to see how they play. I expect they will come here positively."

Mark Danks will lead the attack, starting his last game for City before a three-game ban.

Adam Webster is likely to partner Danks if he shakes off a troublesome hip injury, while Leon Kelly is still nursing a bruised right foot.

Teenage striker Troy Wood is doubtful, struggling with a shin injury, while defender Dennis Pearce may figure if he overcomes a hamstring problem.