Aberdeen resolved to remain Celtic’s chief challengers

Aberdeen players celebrate Adam Rooney's late winner in the League Cup quarter-final against St Johnstone. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS
Aberdeen players celebrate Adam Rooney's late winner in the League Cup quarter-final against St Johnstone. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS
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Derek McInnes is convinced Celtic remain untouchable when it comes to the destination of this season’s Ladbrokes Premiership title but the Aberdeen manager is determined Rangers don’t resume the position as their Old Firm rival’s closest challengers.

That’s a role the Dons have grown into during the Ibrox club’s wilderness years and now they have a chance to put down a marker towards continuation in the first meeting between Aberdeen and Rangers since a 1-1 draw in January 2012.

In the last two years they have narrowed the points gap at the top in record-breaking seasons for the Pittodrie club but still fell well short of Celtic’s total, despite the problems caused by Ronny Deila’s stewardship at Parkhead.

That’s why McInnes believes the start of the Brendan Rogers era, with the increased budget at their new manager’s disposal, has only decreased the chances of preventing a successful title defence.

Of course, the money McInnes has available is also a fraction of that Rangers counterpart Mark Warburton has to spend but the Aberdeen manager is much more optimistic that the squad he has built can match them.

“We have been the team when Rangers weren’t in the league and people were moaning about this and that, we were the one team who put up some sort of fight,” said McInnes.

“Whether that is us this season remains to be seen but we don’t want to drop our standards. We want to stay where we have been. Ronny Deila’s Celtic team accumulated enough points for them to win the championship. They were just beyond what we could do.

“We had an unbeaten club record within that, we have had great unbeaten runs, we have accumulated the most points outwith the Old Firm and still fell short.

“I still believe that over the course of a season that money does have an impact. It doesn’t over 90 minutes and that’s why we think this is a game we can win, and we feel we can beat Celtic as well.

“But it will take, I think, a drop in standards in Celtic’s league form to allow others to get involved in the title race.”

Aberdeen enjoyed the perfect warm-up for the game by beating St Johnstone to reach the semi-final of the Betfred Cup, but it’s an indication of the Dons supporters’ priorities that there were fewer than 9,000 at Pittodrie for the tie.

The place will be packed for the return of a fixture that has been poisonous on and off the field in the past and early indications are it could remain that way as some Aberdeen fans plan to wear black armbands and applaud in the 12th minute in reference to 
Rangers’ year of liquidation.

McInnes has understandably steered clear of going into the history of a game he last experienced as a Rangers player in a 5-1 win at Pittodrie in October 1999 but it is fair to say he knows as much as anyone how much victory means.

“I think it’s a significant fixture on the calendar, Aberdeen against Rangers. It probably gets everyone fired up,” he added. “They’re a good side, they had an impressive performance the other night.

“Rangers have got too much quality, having invested heavily in a squad that already looked good in the Championship, to consider them anything but a tough nut to crack but we’re in good form. I don’t know about us being favourites. I can’t go and spend 
£2 million or £3 million and pay the wages they do but we always feel we can win, especially at Pittodrie. Sunday is no different.”

Ryan Jack misses out through injury and Jonny Hayes faces a fitness test on the hamstring problem that has plagued the winger lately but Adam Rooney will start and the striker, who scored the winner against St Johnstone, wants to mark the occasion with his first against Rangers.

“I think I have played against them twice. I haven’t scored against them,” said Rooney. “It would be bigger than my winner against St Johnstone. I would become a cult hero.”