If Steven Gerrard believed overcoming Celtic would hold the key to his prospects of success as Rangers manager, he might now regard Aberdeen as the biggest obstacle to the progress he craves.
For the third time already this season, Derek McInnes’ side proved a thorn in Gerrard’s side as Scott McKenna’s seventh minute goal handed Rangers their first home defeat under the former Liverpool and England captain.
It was another typically fractious contest between two clubs who hold little affection for each other, both ending the evening with 10 men. Aberdeen striker Sam Cosgrove was sent off in the first half before Alfredo Morelos was dismissed midway through the second half.
The result means Rangers return to the summit of Scottish football was a brief one as they slipped back into second place in an increasingly unpredictable Premiership table, while Aberdeen climbed back into the top six.
The momentum Gerrard will require for a sustained title challenge continues to prove elusive.
Rangers have never won five league games in a row since they came back to the top flight in 2016 and this was another lost opportunity to set that record straight.
The pre-match narrative had favoured Rangers after they ascended to the top of the Premiership on Sunday just a few hours before Aberdeen suffered the agony of a narrow League Cup Final defeat at Hampden.
But it was the visitors, who had remained in the west of Scotland since the weekend to aid their preparations, who looked like a team with momentum as they seized the early breakthrough.
It was a poor goal for Gerrard’s men to concede as they looked flat-footed when Niall McGinn swung over a free-kick from the left. The ball fell for McKenna who took full advantage of Rangers’ disorganisation to drive a shot high beyond the helpless Allan McGregor from close range.
The hosts were clearly rattled by falling behind and continued to look uncertain at the back as Aberdeen captain Graeme Shinnie saw a 20 yard shot gathered by McGregor.
There was what proved to be a fateful first booking for Cosgrove in the 10th minute when he was penalised for a foul on Gareth McAuley in the 10th minute. It was just one of a flurry of free-kicks awarded by referee Steven McLean who struggled to get a grip of what is a notoriously difficult fixture to handle.
It took Rangers some time to find any attacking rhythm against an Aberdeen side who pressed them with great intensity both in the middle of the pitch and on the flanks as they sought to restrict the influence of wide men Daniel Candeias and Glenn Middleton.
The first threat on Joe Lewis’ goal did not arrive until the 25th minute when Morelos stole a yard on his marker to head a James Tavernier corner narrowly wide. Rangers came close again from another Tavernier set piece, this time Lassana Coulibaly heading just over after being picked out by his captain’s free-kick.
Aberdeen were still relatively comfortable with their lead but their task became more complicated with the dismissal of Cosgrove. The big forward contested a loose ball with Connor Goldson which left the Rangers defender in a heap right under the nose of assistant referee Dougie Potter. Cosgrove insisted he had made contact with the ball but referee McLean issued him with his second caution.
As Cosgrove made his way from the pitch, there was an angry touchline exchange between Dons boss McInnes and Rangers assistant manager Gary McAllister who were both issued with a warning by McLean.
Lewis made a fine fingertip save to divert a Middleton shot wide, then Morelos came close with another header, as Rangers tried but failed to make their numerical advantage count before the break.
Gerrard made his first change at the start of the second half, Kyle Lafferty reinforcing the attack as left-back Jon Flanagan was withdrawn. Lafferty’s first contribution was a foolish booking for a foul on Shay Logan but he then forced a smart save from Lewis who did even better to keep out Ryan Jack’s deflected effort from the rebound.
Eros Grezda replaced Coulibaly as Rangers loaded up their forward options and Morelos should have equalised in the 61st minute when he blazed over from close range after being set up by Tavernier.
Three minutes later, Morelos provided the kind of leveller his team didn’t want when he was sent off to make it a 10 v 10 contest. Having already been booked for a stoppage time foul on Shinnie, the striker clashed with the Dons skipper again. Morelos’ flying arm towards the face of Shinnie was deemed worthy of a second yellow card by ref McLean. The Rangers players in the vicinity of the incident were less convinced, Connor Goldson sarcastically applauding Shinnie to indicate he had exaggerated contact.
Rangers pressed furiously to try and salvage a point but Aberdeen defended heroically, as typified by match winner McKenna’s brilliant stoppage time penalty box tackle to deny Lafferty what looked a certain goal.