There are two clubs shading them at the top of the table but Paul Cook has seen enough to convince him Sheffield United are the best team in the Championship “without a shadow of a doubt”.
Chris Wilder’s outfit are in a three-way tussle at the top, all on 26 points but with the better goal difference putting Leeds United and Middlebrough in front.
Cook, though, believes today’s opponents are leading the way this term as he underlined the size of the task facing his injury-ravaged squad this afternoon.
He said: “From the teams I’ve seen this year, they are the best team in the division.
“Chris has put together a team without being extravagant and spending what others are spending, that are very good. They are aggressive, in a good way, they are the best team I’ve seen without a shadow of a doubt.
“They have good players, it’s going to be a really tough game for us.
“Sheffield United test you, they’re brave, they’re exciting to watch – I watched them at Blackburn and I thought they were excellent, against a good side.
“They’re terrific all over the pitch, the style of play is very good, their set-pieces, I could go on.
“But we have to go there believing we can win, we have to impose our style at some point in the game, and we have to create chances and score.”
Latics have not been helped by United’s decision to block Lee Evans – on a loan-to-buy agreement– from taking part against his parent club.
Nick Powell is also set to miss out at a time when Cook is without three of his key players – Will Grigg, Michael Jacobs and Gavin Massey – until the new year.
“Powelly was sore after the West Brom game. For us, we have to manage it,” he said. “When we have to take him off early I know it frustrates our fans, it frustrates me. We don’t want to have a player who we believe is the best in the league not on the pitch!
“He pulled up the other night and the likelihood is he probably won’t be available.”
Cook said Grigg, Jacobs and Massey are looking at “months, rather than weeks” on the sidelines but kept their injury woes in check.
“We’re getting stretched, the team on Tuesday (in the 2-1 loss at Milwall) would have been a realisation to our supporters that what we have to manage now and again,” he said.
“I’m not going to start (moaning) about injuries.
“It’s a long race to the finish line... along the way we’ll have had the bad luck, the bad refereeing decision, the suspensions, the injuries – you can list all of those – but we’ll also have days when luck has gone our way.
“Every club has its own difficulties. Managing those is important. Managing people’s expectations is important, and also managing players’ expectations.
“There are teams below us like Aston Villa and Stoke – we’re doing great.
“Every team in the division will have expectations and they have to be realistic. We know our realistic expectations.
“Birmingham are 10 games unbeaten and they’re level on points with us, so within what we’re doing, we’re doing alright.
“We’re a newly promoted side holding our own in this division.”
Latics have lost seven of their eight away games this season, their only win a 3-0 victory at Stoke in August.