Derek McInnes: Dons now face stiffer challenge for second
The Parkhead club may have continued to win the title by comfortable margins but the Dons manager admits their three seasons finishing runners-up have been just as straightforward.
No longer, though. Rangers may have failed to land their number one target to replace Pedro Caixinha but they have exploited the uncertainty that futile pursuit of McInnes caused at Pittodrie to ease ahead of Aberdeen on goal difference.
It’s no coincidence that the Dons have looked more like themselves since that speculation ended in their favour and today they are looking for a third successive league win for the first time since victory at Easter Road in October.
Not that McInnes is expecting that to be easy against a Hibs side unbeaten on their travels in the league this season but then the Aberdeen manager admits he is contending with tougher tests all round now.
“What’s going to be clear for me is that we’ve secured second spot way before the end of the season in previous years” he said.
“I think we were as clear as 17 points when Hearts came back up, last year was nine and the year before that was 16. Second spot was always secured.
“We didn’t just get second spot, we properly secured it without any real fuss. Last year it was by nine points against a newly-promoted Rangers team but this year we have a newly-promoted Hibs team to go alongside Hearts and Rangers.
“It shows that it is a stronger league when so many teams are up there. That brings its own challenges. There is a lot of good teams operating in the league at the minute.
“You don’t get away with below-par performances too much and expect to win games, especially against teams who are in the top half of the table this season.”
McInnes will be hoping Celtic also face a stiffer challenge than a year ago when Brendan Rodgers’ first title as manager was pretty much in the bag by last Christmas.
Another win in today’s lunchtime match-up with Hibs will at least allow them to travel in hope, if not exactly expectation, to Parkhead next weekend as the Aberdeen manager sees signs that they have put recent uncertainties firmly behind them.
“I think the last two performances have been good” he claimed. “I think we go into this game feeling good about ourselves but it’s not about what’s happened in the past, it’s on the challenge ahead.
“The focus is on this game. It’s a great game for us, we’re relishing the chance to go and take on a good Hibs team and let them know that we’re a good side.
“There will be a lot of good players on show in both teams. I expect it to be tight. Both teams don’t normally not score goals so there will probably be goals in it.
“It will be an important three points, it always is when you play teams in and around you. We’re hopeful that we can continue the winning run we’re on.”
Teenager Frank Ross returns to the squad after missing the 3-0 win at Perth with an ankle injury while Stevie May is relieved to have only sat out one game himself after being on the receiving end of Ryan Jack’s terrible tackle at Pittodrie recently. The Rangers midfielder is serving a three-game ban for crunching into May’s ankle during the Ibrox side’s 2-1 win but the striker, who only managed five more appearances in 18 months for Preston North End after suffering serious knee ligament damage, was happy to get off lightly this time
“It’s been dealt with now” said May. “Obviously it was a sore one but thankfully it was nothing too serious.
“As injuries go I’ve not had a lot, although I was out for a long time due to a bad tackle in the past.
“You are always worried when you get injured but thankfully it was nothing serious.
“It was a relief more than anything and thankfully I’ve been able to come back quickly with no issues.”