Aberdeen have grown used to coming in second best to Celtic but they are not accustomed to being usurped by many others.
Yesterday, against Hibernian, they were overshadowed by their hosts and it leaves them looking over their shoulders as both the Leith side and Rangers bear down on them.
The last time they had faced up to each other, it was Hibs who were left bemoaning their poor performance. But, in front of over 19,000, the home side raised their game. It left Aberdeen, who struggled without the driving force of Graeme Shinnie, rattled and their manager Derek McInnes bemoaning a poor day at the office.
When the match got underway there were eight points between the teams, by the time the final whistle sounded that deficit had been cut to five and, with gathering momentum, Hibernian’s belief that they could challenge for the runners up spot in their first season back in the Premiership only grew.
“That’s what we want to do,” said a delighted Neil Lennon. “It was important off the back of Ibrox that we won and kept the momentum going. With Hearts dropping points in the Highlands, it has extended the gap between us and them and we are looking up the way rather than backwards, although there’s a lot of football to be played.”
It means that with key wins in their last two games they have edged their way into contention and, having addressed some of the issues that had held them back earlier in the season, they are now looking to build on that; something McInnes is acutely aware of.
“Listen, I said at the start of the season Rangers were huge favourites to finish in second spot, and I think Hibs will push us for that third spot. But we don’t want to give up that second spot, we want to finish as high as we can, we want to go on the type of run we are capable of going on.
“That was an isolated performance in the second half, we don’t get too many of them. But when you play a good team like Hibs you need to be so much better than that. When one team needed to step it up Hibs stepped it up and we go away with nothing, With only eleven games to go we can’t have too many days like this.”
Like two fighters circling each other in the ring, this was a match where both teams took 45 minutes to try to suss each other out. But when they returned for the second half, it was Hibs who landed the early knockout blow.
Up front Jamie Maclaren and Florian Kamberi look to be the kind of players the Leith side have been missing. Offering movement and a physical presence, they have quickly developed an understanding with each other and the men supplying them.
The Australian, making his first competitive start, was unlucky not to get onto the scoresheet but he was a major contributor to the victory. He had chance after chance either blocked by the rattled Aberdeen rearguard or Freddie Woodman in the visitors’ goal.
But his persistence paid off in the 47th minute. Through on the keeper following a Paul Hanlon long ball forward he was again denied, but Scott Allan immediately pinged a pass straight back in for him and he drove another effort goalwards, only to see Woodman dive to parry that as well. The keeper’s good fortune ran out, though, as this time Martin Boyle was first to react and headed the ball into the gaping net.
It was the lift the home side had been seeking. Confident in the middle of the park, where Lennon is spoiled by the quality of Dylan McGeouch, John McGinn and Allan, as well as the pace and endeavour provided by Boyle, they had started to edge proceeding the longer the first half had gone on. And while Aberdeen tried to shake things up and countermand that by swapping Adam Rooney for Stevie May after the interval, they couldn’t get a foothold in the match as Hibernian began to run riot.
Disjointed and uncomfortable, Aberdeen were a shadow of their normal selves and while some credit goes to their hosts, they know they played a major part in their own downfall, struggling for cohesion and mustering only a couple of Kenny McLean long range efforts.
The second goal wrapped things up for Hibs in the 59th minute, with Andrew Considine failing to clear his lines quickly enough and Kamberi pouncing to turn and shoot past Woodman.
Before the match Hibs had talked of the fact they had yet to take any points off the Pittodrie side and revealed that their poor showing in Aberdeen in December offered them extra incentive to prove themselves. This afternoon it was Aberdeen facing the long journey home, contemplating how they, too, can turn that disappointment into something worthwhile.