LEAGUE winners always identify certain games and specific victories as being key to their success at the end of a campaign.
Should Celtic lift the Ladbrokes Premiership trophy for a seventh consecutive year come May – and this hard-fought 2-0 win over Aberdeen at Pittodrie yesterday increased that likelihood significantly – they will pinpoint this result as being pivotal to the achievement.
This fixture was, even with their opponent’s wretched nine-game losing streak against them, a treacherous one for Brendan Rodgers’s side.
It came less than 72 hours after their 3-0 loss to Zenit St Petersburg in the second leg of their Europa League last 32 double header over in Russia on Thursday night and long journey home to Scotland.
The display, perhaps not surprisingly, was hardly their most swashbuckling. They spent long spells, in the second half especially, defending furiously. Only the poor finishing of their rivals kept them first on level terms and then in front.
Yet, the final outcome of the game was of greater importance than how aesthetically pleasing their showing was on this particular occasion.
Goals from Moussa Dembele in the first-half and Kieran Tierney late on in the second ensured their nine point lead at the top of the table was duly restored.
With no European football to sidetrack them in the remaining months of the 2017/18 season it is, even with another 10 league games to negotiate and 30 points up for grabs, very difficult to see them being caught.
Had they drawn or even lost yesterday that would not have been the case. Rangers would have been seven or maybe just six points adrift. With two Glasgow derbies remaining the pressure would well and truly have been on.
Celtic have, despite the fact they have qualified for the Champions League group stages for the second season running, romped clear in the Premiership, retained the Betfred Cup, progressed to the knockout rounds of the Europa League and booked their place in the William Hill Scottish Cup quarter-final, not been as dominant this term as they were last.
It is still not altogether inconceivable they will continue to haemorrhage points – they have lost to Hearts and Kilmarnock and drawn with Hibs, Kilmarnock twice, Motherwell, St Johnstone twice and Rangers – and be pegged back.
But with Stuart Armstrong, Dedryck Boyata, Marvin Compper and Patrick Roberts all expected to recover from injury and become available in the coming weeks the chances are they will improve not regress.
It was, despite their losing run against Celtic being extended to 10 games, hard to criticise the Aberdeen players or their manager Derek McInnes at the end of 90 compelling minutes.
They were not, as has often been the case in the last two years, swatted aside by a superior side without putting up a fight. Far from it. Had Kari Arnason and Stevie May got on the end of fine Kenny McLean deliveries in the first-half the final result could have been favourable for them. The duo failed to connect each time by a matter of millimetres.
A remarkable spell in the second-half summed up the home team’s lack of good fortune up front. The outstanding McLean burst through on goal only to have his shot saved by Dorus de Vries, Niall McGinn pounced on the loose ball but saw his effort blocked by Jozo Simunovic on the line and then Anthony O’Connor had his attempt headed clear by Mikael Lustig. What did they have to do to score?
When Lustig was sent off by Bobby Madden for a second bookable offence with 14 minutes of regulation time remaining it looked decidedly ominous for the visitors.
Celtic, though, produced the response of champions by netting a fine breakaway goal in the 83rd minute. Dembele broke upfield and supplied Tierney, who came racing up outside him with a freakish burst of pace. The left back drilled a low shot past Freddie Woodman to sew up all three points.
There was no way back for Aberdeen after that cruel. Sam Cosgrove, who had come on for May, was rightly ordered off by Madden for a petulant and despicable challenge on Brown. The substitute was fortunate his aim was as badly off as that of his team mates in the final third. Had he connected then he could have inflicted a serious injury.
This was, with their adversaries nursing bruised pride and carrying weary limbs after their exertions less than three days earlier, perhaps the best chance that Aberdeen will have to take points off Celtic and they failed to take advantage of it.