UNDERSTANDABLY, the anticipation that was a feature of the previous meeting between these sides just a few weeks ago was far less intense by the time Saturday lunch-time came around. Aberdeen were hardly showing the form of genuine league challengers after a run of four league defeats in five outings – and they still aren’t.
By the end of the afternoon, far from getting their title bid back on track, the visitors had slipped back to third place. Those Aberdeen fans remaining inside Parkhead after the final whistle cheered their heroes enthusiastically enough.
But this applause seemed shot through with relief as much as anything else. The final result of 3-1 was a lot better than they had feared at around the 60th-minute mark, when Celtic scored a third through James Forrest and looked odds on to help themselves to more. Leigh Griffiths was hunting a hat-trick and few would have bet against him getting it.
In the end it was Adam Rooney who grabbed the next goal, one that was greeted by eerie silence. The Aberdeen fans already knew the game was up while the Celtic fans had the comfort of knowing the striker’s looping header didn’t matter in the final analysis.
What this defeat means for Aberdeen’s title aspirations, only time will tell. But in order to arrest a slide that has seen them pick up just a single point since a 3-1 win over Hearts in September, they know it is vital to claim all three points at home against Dundee United this weekend.
With Hearts at home to Hamilton on the same day, even a win might not be enough to reclaim second place, never mind set their sights back on catching Celtic. Like his manager Derek McInnes, defender Mark Reynolds knows Aberdeen have to begin at the beginning again and discover how to win once more. They need to stop thinking about the pursuit of others and start concentrating on themselves.
“It is sometimes just about finding a way to win,” Reynolds said. “When we beat Celtic a few weeks ago at Pittodrie it wasn’t pretty football but we just found a way to get the three points. Regardless of whether we are playing good football or scoring five or six goals, all we want is a 1-0 or a 2-1 to get that three points on the board and kick-start the season.
“There’s been a lot of pressure on us all season,” he added. “When we were winning every game, people were waiting for us to slip up but we kept getting wins. Now everybody is saying we can’t get a win, but we don’t see it that way.”
After that game against Hearts, when Aberdeen had swept their hosts aside before half-time, it would have seemed ridiculous to imagine a Pittodrie player using phrases like needing to “kick-start the season” just a matter of weeks later.
But this is where Aberdeen are. Hearts have assumed the mantle of most likely title challengers for the time being after a string of positive results – including a 0-0 draw at Parkhead against Celtic – after their own blip. But their stumble lasted only three league games. Aberdeen are in the midst of a slump that has extended to half a dozen matches.
Reynolds made a reasonable point when cautioning against making it sound as though their season has unstitched completely. They still have a base of points from which to mount a comeback.
When Aberdeen lost the corresponding fixture last season, it was their fifth league loss of the season. Saturday’s was their fifth as well. It is just that this time they have arrived in a short space of time. Aberdeen had 22 points at this stage last season and still managed to make a fight of it before tailing off in the end. They already have 25 points this time around.
“It’s never good losing as many as that but we still have a good number of points on the board,” said Reynolds. “It is compounded by having the eight wins in a row at the start, so it looks worse now.
“If you’d had looked at us trailing Celtic by only four points before this game, you’d be saying that we were doing alright. But of course it becomes a more worrying statistic when you lose five [sic] on the spin.
“We don’t feel we are doing much wrong but we are not scoring as many as we could and we are giving away cheap goals. If we keep doing that it will be a long old season but we’ll get together and look forward to the game next week when hopefully we can get that win.”
Both sides missed several good chances in the first half, but Aberdeen’s were perhaps more glaring. Rooney knows he should have scored a header that glanced off him and bounded just wide of the far post.
Jonny Hayes’ cross was a sumptuous one; Rooney only needed to direct the ball inside the post, but couldn’t. A goal then for Aberdeen might have changed the course of the match. In truth, however, Celtic were already knocking on the door.
Griffiths scored just a matter of minutes later, having missed a clear opportunity moments earlier after a good block from Danny Ward.
But he made amends in fine style shortly afterwards after a raking cross from the left from Kieran Tierney, who had another fine game and looks set to start ahead of Emile Izaguirre again on Thursday against Molde.
There was still work to do for Griffiths, who out-jumped substitute Paul Quinn to direct a header past Ward into the corner. His second came from the penalty spot after a frankly ludicrous challenge from Ash Taylor on Kris Commons.
Taylor’s bowed head said it all as he made his way back to the edge of the box, from where he watched Griffiths sweep the ball home for his second of the afternoon. When Forrest prodded in a third after good lead-up play it was all over.
The teams’ next league encounter is in January. Whether or not it will command the interest once expected rests on how quickly Aberdeen can get back to winning ways.