Were it not for Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic, Aberdeen might have hit the heights not scaled since the days of Sir Alex Ferguson.
Last season, the Dons finished second in the Scottish Premiership table, behind only the Hoops.
That’s been the case for each of the last four years. When they reached the finals of both the Scottish Cup and League Cup in 2016/17, they found Celtic in their way each time, and this Sunday, with the first trophy of the season up for grabs, Aberdeen face a familiar foe.
Some say Derek McInnes and his players have a mental block when it comes to games against Celtic.
After all, Aberdeen have shown they suffer no such inferiority complex against Rangers, seeing off the Ibrox side in the League Cup semi-finals on their way to the final. And yet they have lost 10 of the 11 games played against Rodgers’ Celtic over the past three seasons, with their one win coming on the final day of last season when the title had long been wrapped up.
Evidence of a mental block is anecdotal, though. More likely it’s just that Celtic are better than their northern rivals, illustrated by the fact they are on course for an unprecedented third Treble-winning season in a row, now dubbed the ‘Treble Treble.’
Assuming the Hoops will clinch their eighth successive league title, victory on Sunday would put them just one step away from an era-defining achievement.
Had this match been played a few weeks ago, Aberdeen might have fancied their chances.
Celtic struggled to find their groove early on in the season, dropping points to St Mirren, Kilmarnock and Hearts as they failed to make the Champions League group stage. There were even questions over Rodgers’ future at the club.
Since then, though, Celtic have found the sort of form that has made them untouchable over the past two seasons.
They have scored 26 times in their last seven domestic matches to blow away the likes of St Johnstone, Hibernian, Dundee and Hearts (twice). After a brief hiatus, Celtic have regained their customary place at the top of the Scottish Premiership table and at the top of the Scottish game.
It’s possible that Celtic may suffer a drop-off following their Europa League exerts during the week.
Livingston managed to frustrate them, holding firm for a goalless draw, just days after Celtic had beaten RB Leipzig earlier in the month, giving Aberdeen some hope that a tired and weary opposition side might turn up to Hampden this weekend.
Celtic have so many options, however, it’s hard to believe they won’t find a winning formula.
James Forrest has scored 12 times in his last 13 outings for club and country, with Ryan Christie currently in the form of his life. Against the team he spent 18 months on loan at, the 23-year-old could be key.
Aberdeen will likely favour a stodgy, conservative match. The irrepressibly inventive and energetic Christie could be the game-breaker.
Whether Scott Brown plays or not could decide what sort of contest Sunday’s final will be.
Not so long ago, Celtic were utterly dependent on their captain, but following a recent injury to the midfielder the argument could be made that they are a faster, more dangerous team without him. In the space of the past few weeks, Celtic may well have evolved beyond Brown.
Many argued earlier in the season that Celtic’s grip on the Scottish game was loosening, that they could be challenged.
That argument has since lost credence and this Sunday’s League Cup final presents Rodgers’ side with yet another opportunity to demonstrate just how far ahead of the chasing pack they remain.
Aberdeen will, most likely, be reminded of their inferiority.