Derek McInnes believes his Aberdeen side face the toughest test in four years to maintain their position as Celtic’s closest challengers, although this impressive victory greatly diminishes the chance of Hibernian threatening that.
This was the Dons third successive league win since their manager rejected the opportunity to replace Pedro Caixinha at Ibrox and the first time they have achieved that modest success since a 1-0 win at Easter Road in October.
Neil Lennon’s side were perhaps a shade unfortunate to lose that one but there could be no complaints this time as their first Premiership away defeat of the season was inevitable before the half way stage.
By then Gary Mackay-Steven was two thirds of the way towards a memorable hat trick after Graeme Shinnie had shot Aberdeen into an early lead they never looked in any danger of relinquishing.
The £150,000 signing from Celtic completed his treble in 62 minutes and forget Christmas, Mackay-Steven must wish it could be Hibernian every day as his only previous league goal was that winner in the previous meeting.
It leaves Lennon’s side trailing Aberdeen by nine points at the end of a week of increasing frustration for a manager who saw Mikael Lustig’s goal line clearance prevent them beating Celtic, then David Bates unpunished handball deny them the opportunity of a point saving penalty against Rangers.
His irritation had nothing to with any hard luck stories though as Hibernian were initially undone by three well constructed goals as well as one where Efe Ambrose reverted to the sort of howling blunder that made the unfortunate Nigerian such a figure of fun for opposing fans during his days at Celtic.
The irony is it had all started so promisingly for the visitors as the pressed a high line which initially left Aberdeen struggling to establish any sort of rhythm to their play, but it also meant Hibs attacks were all too frantic to be effective.
Calm consideration was what was needed and the home side provided it with a sublime opening goal from their first meaningful attack as Kenny McLean cut away from Marvin Bartley before placing a crossfield pass into the path of Mackay-Steven.
His cushioned volley into the path of Shinnie was swept into the far corner without breaking stride and there was a remarkable similarity to their second striker in 36 minutes when Bartley failed to get near to Ryan Christie this time.
Another sweeping move continued with contributions from Shinnie and Andrew Considine, who slid through Mackay-Steven to coolly nutmeg poor Darren McGregor before shooting in-off the inside of Ofir Marciano’s right hand post.
However McGregor’s embarrassment was nothing compared to that of Ambrose who added to his already impressive series of cock-ups by dithering on the ball, allowing Mackay-Steven to dispossess him before advancing to score Aberdeen’s third in 45 minutes.
There was still time before the break for John McGinn to finally threaten the home goal with a 25 yard drive but Joe Lewis stifled any thoughts of a comeback with a marvellous diving save low to his left.
Lennon’s dissatisfaction was evident when Bartley and McGregor were replaced by Steven Whittaker and Anthony Stokes at the interval but it made little difference to the general flow as McInnes’ side maintained their sharper edge throughout.
The only surprise was that they only added one more goal in the second period such was the threat posed by their superior invention and movement going forward but there was no preventing Mackay-Steven heading home with the early Christmas present of the match ball.
If this was arguably Aberdeen’s best performance of the season then there is no doubt it was the former Celtic winger’s most impressive game for the club after taking time to settle in to the role Jonny Hayes used to do so well.
What’s more the goal that clinched his hat trick in 62 minutes was another excellent finish, all the better for having played such an incisive part in the creation, exchanging passes with Stevie May before opening up the space for shot that arched into the far corner from the edge of the area.
This was also Hibs biggest defeat of the season but it could have been even worse as Considine had a headed goal wrongly disallowed for offside and it took a fortuitous double deflection for Stokes shot to eventually find the net off Shinnie for a late consolation, not that Lennon will take much comfort from that.