Celtic play Rangers on Sunday in a title-deciding match at Parkhead. Perhaps we’ve all been…
With just two match days left of the Scottish Premiership season we still find ourselves in the enviable position of three clubs fighting for second place. Hibs, Aberdeen and Rangers could all still finish this fascinating campaign with the underappreciated title of “best of the rest” behind Celtic’s unstoppable march to another league title.
Luckily for us neutrals, this notable sub-plot to the league campaign could reach its climax on Tuesday night when Rangers travel to Pittodrie knowing anything less than three points would still leave Aberdeen in pole position.
However, despite the warm and joyous welcome Rangers fans provided during Steven Gerrard’s unveiling last week, things at Ibrox are still very precarious. And despite what the initial temptations may be whenever Aberdeen come up against either of Glasgow’s two giants, Derek McInnes’ side are most likely the favourites for this tie.
From an Aberdeen point of view there’s certainly plenty to be optimistic about going in to this mid-week clash. Although the weekend’s draw with Hibs may be seen by some fans as two points dropped, it does fit in with a wider trend of McInnes’ team doing pretty well of late.
For example, the Pittodrie side have lost just two of their last 11 games in all competitions stretching back to the start of March and when you filter their results by home matches alone you have a stretch of 13 games in which Aberdeen have lost just one game – and that was a 2-0 defeat to the eventual champions, Celtic.
Indeed, while Hibs have been hogging all the praise and Rangers have been demanding most of the column inches across the Scottish media, Aberdeen have quietly but confidently set about doing what they do so well under McInnes: forget about losing to Celtic or Rangers and getting back to winning the games they ought to win.
While Rangers fans may take confidence from the three, consecutive wins Murty’s side inflicted on an Aberdeen team still comprehending and then recovering from the idea of McInnes swapping Pittodrie for Ibrox, they’d do well to note the vital performances that their coming opponents have hammered out in the north east in the proceeding fixtures.
Since the 2-1 defeat to Rangers at Pittodrie on December 3, Aberdeen have hosted top six sides in seven matches and lost just one – the aforementioned defeat to Brendan Rodgers’ side. But they’ve also gone on to win three of those matches whilst picking up at least a point in the other three. Hearts, Hibs and Kilmarnock have all either been beaten or firmly matched in the past five months when they’ve asked questions of this Aberdeen side and that’s exactly what Rangers should be wary of in Tuesday clash.
While McInnes and his side are regularly berated for their record against either side of the Old Firm, there’s no denying that they do know how to match the other big teams within the league and often best them too. At Pittodrie Aberdeen are no slouches.
As mentioned at the top of the article, Rangers almost certainly need all three points from this game. A draw would keep the Dons one point ahead going in to the final day of the season and would force the Ibrox side into the tricky situation of beating a Hibs team that may still be fighting for that exact, same spot at Easter Road.
However, that may be a tougher task than initially presumed. While fans may be exceptionally optimistic for Gerrard’s arrival, the here and now is a very different story entirely. Murty is gone, Jimmy Nicholl is in and above all else this Rangers team are in the midst of a rather dreadful run of form.
In their last 10 games across all competitions, the Ibrox side have picked up just five wins and a draw, which naturally then means four defeats. Sure, three of those defeats were to Celtic, but there’s just been very little elsewhere to suggest Rangers are anywhere near their best at this moment in time.
The weekend’s 1-0 win over Kilmarnock – like the 2-1 win over Hearts in late April – was a rather dire match that was far from convincing. Couple that with the recent 2-2 draw with Motherwell and the mirrored 1-0 defeat to Steve Clarke’s side last month and you don’t really have too much evidence to suggest Rangers should be expecting to pick up three points at Pittodrie.
Even if we were to rely solely on Rangers’ head-to-head history with Aberdeen, it still isn’t exactly a watertight theory that is steeped in years of historical data. We’ve only got two seasons’ worth of games to base it off of and even within that set of seven matches Aberdeen won two of them.
Indeed, it was less than a year ago that McInnes’ side rocked up to Ibrox and walked away with a 2-1 win in front of 50,000 Rangers fans. And earlier that very season Rangers went to Pittodrie and lost 2-1. If Aberdeen win on Tuesday night their head-to-head with their Govan rivals over the past two seasons would then state that the Dons had a 37.5% win ratio. Not a bad return against a club that seemingly hold a mental block over them.
Whatever happens at Pittodrie on Tuesday night will almost certainly dictate who ultimately finished second in the Premiership come the end of the season. And off the back of that narrative, rumours and historical notes will dictate how both clubs moved through the off-season and prepare for the 2018/19 campaign.
For Aberdeen, this may be the perfect opportunity to banish the somewhat inaccurate narrative that they can’t beat Rangers. For the Ibrox club, a victory would go a long way to cementing their spot in the Scottish football hierarchy whilst offering a useful platform for Gerrard to begin his work this summer.