Aberdeen chasing Celtic but can they maintain pressure?

In the business of a title race you might say that Wednesday was Aberdeen's fourth coming, the fourth time in 18 months where they have presented themselves as a threat to the natural order of things at the top of the Premiership.

You'll remember the first coming, that terrific run of eight straight league victories last season that saw them lead the way by four points in early January, albeit having played two more games than Ronny Deila's Celtic.

Their challenge stumbled in the spring, but it had been quite a ride while it lasted. Celtic battered them 4-0 in March and when Aberdeen dropped points to Dundee and Partick Thistle in quick succession the game was up.

Celtic motored clear and by season's end had won the league by 17 points, Derek McInnes' team barely visible in their rear-view mirror.

It got interesting again at the start of this season. Aberdeen were five points clear of Celtic after eight games.

That was the second coming. By 31 October, Aberdeen had fallen away to third, seven points adrift of top spot.

The run that caused the damage was short-lived but painful. One point from a possible 15 was a collapse nobody saw coming.

And many of us thought it fatal. We shook our heads and said that any team that had the self-destruction in their system of five-match winless streak couldn't legitimately be seen as a genuine - rather than a wished-for - rival to Celtic

They recovered some ground, though. Partly through a run of five wins and a draw, partly through Celtic's own slip-ups.

In mid-December, they were just one point behind Celtic, though they had played one game more. That was the third coming. That, too, looked like it had been seen off. By mid-January Celtic had played their games in hand and had established a six-point lead.

Celtic were annihilating teams while the Dons were merely getting by. Winning, but by a goal. Nothing flash, no pummellings but points all the same. Three here, three there until Wednesday, when Celtic had it in their gift to stretch their lead to nine points - effectively ending Aberdeen's resistance - but couldn't do it.

The fourth coming.

Now only three points divide them. Celtic are wounded, dumped out of the League Cup by Ross County and well-beaten by a hungrier Aberdeen in the league.

It was 2-1 at Pittodrie but the scoreline was a lie. You wouldn't say that the Dons produced their best stuff of the season - they can, and have, played a good deal better - but they were too sharp and too clinical for an underwhelming Celtic.

They created more, scored more and, you have to say, looked like they wanted it more.

Pick out the individual battles and Aberdeen won most of them.

For the second time this week, Celtic faced adversity and found little in the struggle. This time, unlike Sunday, there was no convenient straw to clutch, no red card to muddy the waters, no goal that shouldn't have been allowed, no gripes and no complaints.

SCOTTISH PREMIERSHIP
PlayedWonDrawnLostGoals ForGoals AgainstGoal DifferencePoints
Celtic24174364214355
Aberdeen24164440221752
Hearts23118442241841

They were beaten by a group of players who seem to have grown out of their complex of playing Celtic. That's twice that Aberdeen have beaten the champions this season compared to last season's zero from four attempts.

These are still relatively early days in the Premiership, but things are interesting again. Pittodrie is now a place of positivity, Celtic Park the opposite.

McInnes is hailed and Deila is beginning to be hounded. The respective dynamics could scarcely be more different.

There were some big performers for Aberdeen, but the most nimble of them all was arguably McInnes himself when asked if the victory meant that the likely destination of the title was up in the air again.

McInnes knew that the question was coming. He said that nobody thinks that Aberdeen will win the league, that if you asked everybody in Scottish football who will be champions the answer would be Celtic, almost without exception.

And he's right, of course. Celtic remain three points to the good and have a squad that is vastly deeper - and more expensive - than Aberdeen's. There's a long way to go, a long time for McInnes' men to do what they have done in the recent past - zoom on to Celtic's shoulder and then fall.

On the evidence of Sunday at Hampden, Wednesday at Pittodrie and too many other days and nights on Deila's watch, Celtic are vulnerable, however.

There is, at times, a strange lack of resilience and aggression and quality. Too many players not doing enough. Lessons not learned, progress not made.

What there is no lack of right now is negativity. Deila is going to have a job to quell it because he's the subject of much of it. That cloud would have passed above his head had his team won on Wednesday, but it's just got bigger and more threatening.

Celtic captain Scott Brown
Celtic lead by three points and have a far superior goal difference

It's Aberdeen's job to make sure it stays there for a while yet. They have won a big match but they need to keep winning, they need that uncertainty over Celtic's head.

The Dons' next three league games are away from home - St Johnstone, Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Partick Thistle. These are the kind of teams that have unseated them previously.

They have a trip to Perth next. Aberdeen have already lost 5-1 to Tommy Wright's team this season. They lost the one before that as well. They've won one of their last five matches against Saints.

McInnes' team have played Inverness twice already this season and have failed to beat them.

There is an assumption that something similar will happen again, that Aberdeen will fall over themselves on days when they're expected to be dominant.

That's what McInnes was feeding off after Wednesday's game. He was talking to a reporter but, in a sense, he was talking to his dressing room. He was sending them a message. 'Nobody thinks you can do this. Nobody.'

In the coming weeks it'll be interesting to hear their answer, at home and away, in Perth and Inverness, at Firhill and Tynecastle, where they play Hearts in the last game before the split.

That's on 8 April. We can debate whether the title race will still be alive at that point, but the fact is that it's still alive now and that's a good thing. Wednesday could have killed it, but Aberdeen, focused and fearless, had different ideas.

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