While Aberdeen, given they’ve finished runners-up to Celtic over the past few seasons, and Rangers, with the sort of budget the Ibrox club enjoys – even if much of it appears to have been squandered – were expected to be in this particular fight, it is the interlopers of Hibs who have added that extra dollop of excitement.
How people laughed when Neil Lennon suggested his side, then in the Championship, were actually the second best in Scotland the best part of a year ago, viewed as more than a touch of hyperbole from a Hibs boss, who had just seen his players edged out of a second consecutive Scottish Cup final by the Dons.
Bullish but empty rhetoric, which looked as if it would come back to haunt Lennon has he watched his team hammered 4-1 at Pittodrie back in December amid a run which brought just two wins in nine games and appeared certain to leave them staring at a top-six finish at best.
Such an achievement would have been considered decent by many, with Hibs returning to the top flight after a three-year exile, but since that day in December they’ve found a second wind, the desire to “go again”, putting together a run which has seen them lose just once – a narrow 1-0 defeat away to Celtic – in their past 17 league matches.
Almost total consistency, and now, with just two games remaining, Wednesday night’s derby against Hearts at Tynecastle and the visit of Rangers on Sunday, the Easter Road outfit remain very much in with a chance of fulfilling Lennon’s boast.
True, they are, perhaps, the outsiders, three points behind Rangers and two adrift of Aberdeen but, the intrigue remains, the Dons travelling to Ibrox on Tuesday night and then hosting Celtic, well aware they’ve failed to take a single point from either side of the Old Firm this season.
And Rangers will pitch up in Edinburgh painfully conscious of the fact Hibs have beaten them twice on their own turf while they escaped with, according to then interim boss Graeme Murty, a lucky win on their last trip to Easter Road.
So, by no means, are Hibs out of it, but, insisted midfielder Dylan McGeouch, he and his team-mates haven’t been surprised at pushing themselves into such a situation.
“In house we always had that belief,” he said. “The manager said it a few times – we were the second best team in Scotland. But we kept it cool and we knew the first season back would be difficult, to maybe aim for top six and then we broke into that to top four and now we are looking to try to get second.
“It’s great for everyone involved in the club. Since Christmas, it’s been positive and the fans are loving it, as you saw at this game.”
More than 2100 Hibs fans were in the Granite City to witness a match, which on first look at the goalless scoreline would suggest a tense, nervy affair with both sides intent on not losing rather than winning, but nothing could be further from the truth.
In an enthralling opening 45 minutes, Hibs striker Jamie Maclaren had an early penalty saved by Joe Lewis – his effort poor, although a question hung over how far the Dons goalkeeper had been allowed to advance from his line. Maclaren then sent a header over the crossbar, while the Dons’ Niall McGinn crashed a free-kick off Ofir Marciano’s bar.
Add in five bookings in that period and a couple of goalmouth scrambles and it was clear neither side was looking for the draw, Lennon admitting afterwards that while he was again delighted with his team’s performance, there was a tinge of disappointment that they hadn’t travelled home with all three points in the bag.
Maclaren’s early chance came after a perfect pass from Steven Whittaker which left him in the clear, only for Mark Reynolds to bundle him over, a clear penalty and a chance scorned.
Lennon said: “It was a poor penalty from his point of view, he normally puts his laces through them. That would have got us off to a great start, but I was very happy with the performance, delighted with the mentality of the team. We were strong when we had to be and should have won it.
“We got a point, but it could have been a bit better. The fact the announcer said Joe Lewis was man of the match speaks volumes of how we played. Defensively we were good. Darren McGregor, Efe Ambrose and Paul Hanlon headed everything when they had to. Steven Whittaker was outstanding in the middle of the park.”
Lennon singled out Ambrose, who’d had a bit of a nightmare in that December hammering, admitting the Nigerian internationalist gives him the “heebie-jeebies” at times, but adding: “He does the hard things really well and the simple things really hard.
“He didn’t have a great time up here first time around and obviously he wanted to prove a point.
“He had an outstanding game, I was really pleased with him, but I was really pleased with them all.”
“Pittodrie is not an easy place to come and play and with what was at stake they performed very, very well.
“We expected Aberdeen to come at us and they had a decent wee spell after half-time, but I don’t remember my goalkeeper being too much in a panic about anything.
“We certainly did not look like losing the game.
“There’s every chance it will go to the last game of the season and we still have the chance to finish second.
“That’s all I can ask from the players.
“We’ve taken seven points out of nine post-split which is a tremendous return. We said we had five gigantic games before the split, we are unbeaten so far against three cracking teams and now we have two more to play.
“Hearts at home are very strong, but it won’t faze us. We will go there, give everything we have and got. We want to take it to the last day.”