Gloucestershire 235 (Barnard 6-42) and 54 for 4 (Finch 2-7) trail Worcestershire 221 (Wessels 72, Higgins 4-55) and 128 (Higgins 4-34) by 60 runs
Gloucestershire, on the brink of clinching their return to Division One of the County Championship, are making hard work of what should have been a comfortable victory.
Chasing 115 to win after one of the more hapless batting performances by a Worcestershire side who are no strangers to such calamities, they eschewed the temptation to chase victory inside two days - which was possible, with 29 overs left in the day when they began - in favour of a more measured approach, but wound up in difficulties anyway.
As the shadow of the Graeme Hick stand gradually spread across the playing area at the close of what had been a beautiful autumnal day, two wickets for Adam Finch and one each for Joe Leach and Chris Morris turned what had looked like a very straightforward task into something rather more complicated.
James Bracey was caught behind chasing one wide outside off, Tom Smith and Chris Dent were trapped on the crease before Finch produced a fine delivery to have Gareth Roderick caught at second slip.
On a day in which 20 wickets fell, it was a good response from the Worcestershire attack, some of whom had performed with rather less distinction earlier, although if they can avoid any catastrophes in the first half-hour or so on the third morning, Gloucestershire should still tie up a win that will put them within touching distance of promotion.
The end of a 15-year absence could be confirmed this week if results elsewhere go in their favour.
It had been a day in which fortunes fluctuated at a pace that demanded the full attention of spectators. Little more than an hour into the morning session, Gloucestershire had been 135 for 6, 86 behind Worcestershire's first-innings total, yet recovered not only to take a slender lead but to bowl the home side out inside 40 overs.
Much of that was down to Ryan Higgins and David Payne, who not only scored the bulk of the 100 runs Gloucestershire added for their last four wickets but also shared six wickets as Worcestershire, who are no strangers to woeful collapses, subsided to 128 all out.
Higgins, the Zimbabwe-born all-rounder who moved to Bristol from Middlesex two years ago as a white-ball player with potential to be effective in all formats, has exceeded all expectations in Championship cricket. His eight wickets in this match raised his total to 50, following on from 48 last season. Moreover, he needs only 43 more for 1,000 runs.
Gloucestershire had taken a lead of 14 runs on first innings, although Worcestershire will feel they should have been bowled out for somewhat fewer than 235.
They were reduced to 135 for 6 as Ed Barnard claimed his first five-wicket haul of the season with the dismissal of Roderick, who had played well to reconstruct the innings from 56 for 4 overnight, he and Ben Charlesworth adding 72 in 24 overs of steady building.
Soon afterwards, Barnard was taken out of the attack, and it was in his absence from it that Higgins and Payne launched a vigorous counter-attack that put Gloucestershire squarely back in the game, adding 50 in just 33 deliveries. Higgins hit 42 off 43 balls, Payne 44 off 43, including three sixes - one on the hook, the other two lofted over long-on - all off Joe Leach.
Leach had Higgins caught behind off an inside edge and thigh pad, and bowled Josh Shaw next ball, but a heavy toll was taken off some loose overs delivered by Dillon Pennington, Charlie Morris and Finch, who between them conceded 54 in six overs.
Barnard, who also held a fine catch at gully, returned to bowl Payne, finishing with six for 42, the second best figures of his career.
Worcestershire then lost Daryl Mitchell first ball when he walked into an excellent inswinger from Payne, before Jack Haynes was unluckily caught behind down the leg side - by Bracey with Roderick off the field - and Alex Milton was leg before playing across one as Higgins took wickets with consecutive balls.
Milton bagged a pair - his second in three matches and a far cry from his debut hundred in July last year - as Worcestershire lurched into full collapse mode. Payne brought one back sharply to bowl a bemused Riki Wessels and Ben Cox stepped so far across he was bowled middle and leg behind his legs by Higgins.
After Barnard had become the sixth man obliged to make a prompt return to the pavilion, the last vestige of a chance that Worcestershire could offer Gloucestershire a proper challenge disappeared with a run-out that left Leach, the captain, staring at his bat rather sheepishly at the non-striker's end.
For reasons only he could explain, Leach thought his push into the offside off Shannon Gabriel could get him a single. Unfortunately, Hamish Rutherford did not share his optimism and his slow response was fatal, Chris Dent scoring a direct hit with his throw with Rutherford a couple of strides short. To rub salt in the wound, Gabriel had overstepped.
Morris held things up with his unbeaten 28 off 44 balls as the last three wickets more than doubled the Worcestershire total. It seemed of little consequence although, should Gloucestershire lose a couple of early wickets on the third morning, who knows?