Aberdeen were today warned the season until now counts for nothing – all that matters is how they finish the campaign.
Boss Derek McInnes has challenged the Dons to ensure that season finale brings a strong challenge in the league before climaxing with the Scottish Cup back at Pittodrie for the first time since 1990.
Only 12 games remain of the Premiership campaign and McInnes insists there is now no longer room for error.
Following a weekend where the Reds overcame Hamilton 3-0 to capitalise on both sides of the Old Firm suffering defeats, McInnes’ men now trail Premiership leaders Celtic by only eight points.
They still have to face the defending champions twice on league action.
Aberdeen have also opened up a three-point gap on Rangers – despite losing all three league games to the Ibrox club so far this season.
Premiership action will be put on the back-burner this weekend as the Dons welcome Dundee United to Pittodrie in the Scottish Cup fifth round on Sunday.
McInnes wants it to be the first of four cup games culminating in a final return to Hampden.
However, the message from the Pittodrie gaffer is clear – treat EVERY remaining game this season like a cup tie and go all out for the win.
McInnes said: “What has gone in the past this season is not important.
“At this stage (after 26 games) we are on the same amount of points as at the same time last season.
“But your season is judged on whether it has been a success or not over the upcoming period of games.
“So it is important we have that focus.
“We are trying to treat every league game like a cup tie and we hopefully have four cup ties to enjoy as well.
“So from now until the end of the season we feel we have 16 games – that is the mind-set.
“We are hoping to show that motivation to do well in both the league and the cup between now and the end of the season.”
Aberdeen sit on 52 points, an identical return to last season after the same number of games.
Where there has been change is in defending champions Celtic’s return they’ve taken just 60 points from 26 games.
Last season Celtic were running away with the Premiership title at this stage and had opened up a 24-point chasm, having hit the 76-point mark.
That eventually expanded to 30 by the end of the campaign as Brendan Rodgers’ side went the entire domestic campaign undefeated to complete the treble – which culminated with a 2-1 Scottish Cup final win over Aberdeen at Hampden.
This season there has been a previously unseen vulnerability to Rodgers’ side, who lost 1-0 to Kilmarnock at the weekend and were overwhelmed 4-0 by Hearts.
Aberdeen trail the Hoops by just eight points to spark speculation over a potential title challenge.
That perceived challenge would be concrete, but for the Dons’ costly Achilles heel this season – an inability to take anything from the Old Firm in their five meetings.
Aberdeen have lost all three games to Rangers and lost twice to Celtic.
It has been intensely damaging to any title aspirations, possibly fatally so. It has also been frustrating in light of Hibs beating Rangers twice at Ibrox.
Aberdeen have a 100% record against the Easter Road side in their two games so far this campaign.
It must be a source of intense frustration within Pittodrie that the Dons would be five points clear of Celtic at the top of the Premiership and 16 clear of Rangers based on the top three teams’ records against the rest of the division.
A model of consistency against the other nine clubs, Aberdeen have lost just once in 21 (to Motherwell) to teams outwith the Old Firm in the league. They have won 16 and drawn four.
Defending champions Celtic lag behind, having lost twice, drawn five and won 14 against the bottom nine.
Third-placed Rangers’ record against sides other than Celtic and Aberdeen is even worse, as Graeme Murty’s side, which had more than £8 million invested in rebuilding last summer, have won just 11, with six losses and three draws.
But as McInnes has emphasised, the dismal record against the Old Firm is in the past.
All that matters now is completing the campaign with a winning flurry.
If that is achieved what it ultimately brings will be as much in the hands of Celtic as that of the Reds.
McInnes said: “There is no real room for error now.
“We said if we can go and win the next two games against Ross County (4-2) and Hamilton (3-0) we would be second in the league with 12 games to go. It’s all right me plotting that and trying to demand it of the players, but they are the ones who have to go over the line.
“When you get opportunities like that when it gets to this stage in the season then it is important you take them.
“However, wherever we end up in the league will be where we deserve to end up.”
Aberdeen’s form against the nine teams outside the Glasgow two may be impressive, but McInnes is taking nothing for granted.
He reckons every remaining match will be a battle with each team fighting for something.
He said: “There are 12 games to go in the league and from our point of view every point is precious. Every club, whether at the bottom of the table fighting for survival, or fighting for top six and European spots.
“At this stage of the season regardless of who we face there is a lot on each game.
“That is why it was so pleasing to get nine points from the last three games and score 10 goals. Against Ross County and Kilmarnock I would have liked that perfect performance with clean sheets.
“If we can get those clean sheets on the back of not negating the attacking threat that would be great.”