Celtic, feeling the pressure after Zenit St. Peterburg knocked them out of the Europa League on Thursday, travelled north to Aberdeen amidst talk of a title challenge from either the Dons or their city rivals Rangers.
Brendan Rodgers’ side answered all the questions, picking up a tough 2-0 victory at Pittodrie and moving 12 points clear of their opponents and nine ahead of Rangers.
Moussa Dembélé opened the scoring after 37 minutes, just his sixth of season and in the second half Kieran Tierney popped up with the second, helping 10-man Celtic go home with all three points.
Here are five things we learned from Celtic’s 2-0 win over Aberdeen on Sunday.
Talk of a title race was premature
There was a certain giddiness among some Rangers fans ahead of this clash between their two closest rivals. With their win over Hearts on Saturday, Graeme Murty’s side had closed the gap at the top of the Scottish Premiership to just six points. Had Celtic dropped anything at Pittodrie, talk of a title race would have been ramped up.
The champions didn’t even need to find top gear to see off the team that have been their closest challengers for the past three seasons, exposing the gulf that still remains between the best and the rest in Scotland.
What’s more, this is a Celtic team missing a number of key players through injury. Even when they are depleted as they currently are, they have the depth to see off, arguably, the second best side in the country.
The sending off of Mikael Lustig might have put the Hoops under some pressure late on, but there was always a composure and assurance about Celtic that they would leave Pittodrie with three points, scoring a second to restore the nine-point gap.
Aberdeen were left with no choice but to stand off Celtic
Given their recent record against Celtic, which had seen them lose their last eight games against Rodgers’ side, Aberdeen might have been tempted to get in the faces of their opponents from the start.
After all, this is something many other Scottish Premiership sides have done to the league leaders, to great success in many cases.
But with the absence of Ryan Christie and Graeme Shinnie robbing the Dons of creativity and drive, Derek McInnes had no choice but to set his side up to sit deep and stand off Celtic.
That might have been frustrating for the home fans, who vented their disgruntlement as early as the opening 10 minutes, but Aberdeen simply didn’t have the personnel to play any other way.
The closest the Dons got to pressing Celtic was in their deployment of a barrier of Stevie May, Kenny McLean and Gary Mackay-Steven whenever the visitors had the ball.
May, in particular, tried his best to force Jozo Simunovic and Kristoffer Ajer into mistakes, but snapped back into position whenever the ball was passed around him. This was a disciplined display from the Dons, but that suited Celtic just fine.
They surely could have opened things up in the second half against a tired Hoops side still recovering from their Europa League exerts, but there was no such ambition.
Tom Rogic is the key to opening up Celtic’s attacking line
Before the trip north to face Aberdeen, the Bhoys had gone back-to-back games without finding the net. Some may have argued that this was merely an unfortunate quirk, but there has been a sense in recent weeks that the Hoops’ attacking line is struggling for fluidity.
Rodgers’ side is one defined by what they do in the final third of the pitch, but they have looked rather sluggish there of late.
Tom Rogic made a difference against Aberdeen, though. The Australian has suffered with injuries of late, with Rodgers also favouring Callum McGregor and Charly Musonda at times in the central attacking midfield role.
Both McGregor and the Chelsea loanee are talented players, but the Belgian in particular likes to take more touches of the ball, sometimes more than required.
In contrast, Rogic’s entire game is based on picking up the ball and turning towards goal as quickly as he can.
This naturally opens up options, particularly against an Aberdeen side content with sitting deep and plugging the gaps. The 25-year-old brings another dimension to Celtic’s play. The Hoops have missed his contribution for a large spell of the season.
Dembele not at his sharpest, but movement encouraging
Much has been made of Dembele’s scoring record in recent weeks, with the Frenchman struggling for form. His scoring return is so poor, it was pointed out on Saturday that Partick Thistle striker Conor Sammon has now scored more Scottish Premiership goals this season than the Frenchman.
The 21-year-old’s lack of sharpness can largely be blamed on injury, but against Aberdeen there were glimpses of the player who attracted so much attention last season. Dembélé was presented with a golden opportunity for the opening goal, heading home from close range after an astonishing cross from James Forrest, but his performance was about more than this.
He could, and perhaps should, have found the net more than once, spurning a few half-chances, but the fact that the former Fulham youngster was in the positions to receive those chances was encouraging. The French striker’s movement was much better than it has been in recent weeks, focussed on getting in behind the opposition defence, but also taking the ball into feet and driving forward.
Aberdeen still have a complex against Celtic
As already explained, Derek McInnes was robbed of the creativity and drive needed to high press Celtic, but the hosts’ showing the second half showed how Aberdeen still have a complex when it comes to games against the Hoops.
With just over ten minutes left, Celtic were reduced to 10-men following the showing of a second yellow card to Lustig. But rather than look to run the channels and get in behind a diminished opposition backline, McInnes decided to go direct and physical instead, playing right into Celtic’s hands.
That approach resulted in the sending off of Sam Cosgrove just minutes after his introduction from the bench.
Aberdeen’s mentality was poor from the start. It’s been proven many times this season that Celtic can be unsettled when they are pressed high up the pitch, but the Dons at no point in the match showed the intention to do that.