Celtic v Aberdeen: Premiership top two prepare to meet
|Scottish Premiership: Celtic v Aberdeen|
|Venue: Celtic Park, Glasgow Date: Sunday 1 March Kick-off: 12:00 GMT|
|Coverage: Listen on BBC Radio Scotland 810MW/DAB/online; live text commentary on BBC Sport website|
The title will not be decided when Celtic host Aberdeen on Sunday but the nature of the ongoing contest between the two sides at the top of the table, along with the limits and the extent of their ambitions, will be shaped by events at Celtic Park.
The anticipation of compulsive drama has been set by the circumstances, with the champions currently three points clear and holding one game in hand.
An Aberdeen victory would apply pressure to Celtic, both psychologically and competitively, while a win for the home side would subdue the sense of them being breathlessly pursued.
There will still be 11 rounds of league games remaining but the season is narrowing towards its conclusion. Opportunities for the two sides at the top of the Premiership to confirm the credentials of their title challenge are steadily counting down, so their meeting on Sunday carries the potential to be a defining moment.
Discarding the pack
Supporters of Inverness Caledonian Thistle might disagree with an air of indignation but the championship has become established now as a two-horse race. Even then, traditionalists will argue that Celtic ought to be considered outright favourites.
The Glasgow club undoubtedly deploy greater resources - and they carry an advantage into the culmination of this year's competition.
Celtic can call upon a squad with greater strength in depth, as well as individuals who have won the competition previously, so they are able to trust in their composure when they feel the pinch of critical moments.
Of the likely starters in Celtic's first-choice XI, only Jason Denayer, Stuart Armstrong and Gary Mackay-Steven have not been at the club when the title has been won.
Aberdeen do not have that reservoir of experience and assurance. Derek McInnes, an impressively focused and pragmatic manager, has built a squad that bristles with players who possess a strong mentality.
That quality has underpinned the scoring threat carried in a four-man attack that will consider itself capable of standing toe-to-toe with their Celtic counterparts.
Mentality will exert an influence and the Aberdeen players will feel emboldened by their triumph in last season's League Cup. It is a measure of the contemporary gap between the two clubs that the victory was so vigorously celebrated, being Aberdeen's first major trophy in 19 years, whereas Celtic fans assume that cups will be gathered by the armful every season.
That level of relentless expectation results in the hardening of the resolve of Celtic players. Those who feel oppressed by the demands tend to find themselves quickly ushered from the premises, so being harried by Aberdeen should not cause Celtic players to falter.
The odds will favour Celtic for practical as well as theoretical reasons. The sides have met twice this season and Ronny Deila's team won both games 2-1.
Celtic endured moments of hesitation early in the campaign as Deila adapted to his surroundings but also began the painstaking process of imposing his strategy on a group of players who were used to operating to different values.
The numbers stack up to an impressive period of dominance. In their last 13 domestic matches, Celtic have won 11, drawn one and lost one. They conceded only three goals in that spell, although that is a measure of goalkeeper Craig Gordon's imperious form and the lack of striking aplomb in opponents, as much as the worth of the Celtic defence as a whole.
Virgil van Dijk and Denayer are young defenders who ripple with potential but there are flashes of naivety, too, and the Celtic full-backs are granted freedom to hare forward as though a conservative approach might alienate them.
With Scott Brown and Nir Biton developing an adaptable and effective combination in midfield, there is growing scope for Celtic's attack-minded players to scatter opposition defences with the deftness of their movement and technical aplomb.
Armstrong and Mackay-Steven have brought additional finesse and scurrying creativity to the front four, while the soul and mood of the side seems increasingly sustained by the reliable guile and endless effort of Stefan Johansen. Leigh Griffiths and John Guidetti vie for the striking position, bringing waspish movement or bullish assertiveness.
There will be no inferiority complex from the visitors, since they racked up two victories over Celtic last season that told of Aberdeen's growing composure. Even the latter defeat this season, at Pittodrie, was littered with evidence of Aberdeen's ability to trade blows with Celtic.
Aberdeen have won 10, drawn two and lost one of their last 13 matches, and are in the midst of their best run in the league since the 1992-93 season. That spell includes 10 clean sheets but also goalscoring sprees, which reflect the strengths of McInnes's side.
The defence is settled, while Ryan Jack and Peter Pawlett are dynamic in central midfield. The front four - Niall McGinn, Kenny McLean, Johnny Hayes and the 23-goal Adam Rooney - combine running power with technical aplomb and decisive, darting movement.
Managing the moment
The game will take place less than 72 hours after Celtic's defeat and elimination by Inter Milan in the Europa League. Aberdeen will be fresher since their last game was eight days before. The surroundings can, however, act like a stimulus.
|Last 10 meetings, winners in bold|
|Aberdeen 1-2 Celtic (Lge, Nov 14)||Celtic 2-1 Aberdeen (Lge, Sep 14)|
|Celtic 5-2 Aberdeen (Lge, May 14)||Aberdeen 2-1 Celtic (Lge, Feb 14)|
|Celtic 1-2 Aberdeen (Cup, Feb 14)||Celtic 3-1 Aberdeen (Lge, Nov 13)|
|Aberdeen 0-2 Celtic (Lge, Aug 13)||Celtic 4-3 Aberdeen (Lge, Mar 13)|
|Aberdeen 0-2 Celtic (Lge, Nov 12)||Celtic 1-0 Aberdeen (Lge, Aug 12)|
Celtic Park will reverberate with the excitable tension created by a genuinely competitive and significant occasion. The home players will be sustained by that atmosphere, while the visitors will need to show that they are not inhibited by it.
Nerves might be shredded but the opportunity exists to deliver a telling result. The instinct is to expect Celtic to prevail but Aberdeen are capable of shaking up the old routine, at least in a one-off game.
The championship is still likely to return to Celtic Park, even if the story delivers unexpected occurrences.