Never mind Celtic, on course for a domestic treble and a season unbeaten against domestic opponents. Aberdeen are the team against whom Rangers need to measure themselves, according to Pedro Caixinha, the Ibrox manager.
Caixinha takes Rangers to Pittodrie tomorrow for a game in which an 11th consecutive victory for the Dons would all but guarantee them second place, the target set for Rangers by their chairman, Dave King, at the start of the season. Although Caixinha has only been in Scotland for a month he has seen enough of Derek McInnes’s team to judge that they merit their place in the table.
“Definitely. I see that mentality in Aberdeen,” he said. “I see one entire squad fighting for the same goal all the time, constantly.
“That’s one of the reasons I’m taking this game as a challenge in order to see the way we are going to react. Or even better to see if we are going to be proactive. That’s a fantastic challenge.”
For over a century it was an Ibrox dictum that finishing second was not acceptable for Rangers, but the convulsions of recent years, plus a below-par return from Mark Warburton’s investments last summer, mean that an improbable runners-up finish would represent a notable accomplishment for Caixinha.
“It’s always important - if you can finish second, it’s better than finishing third,” he said.
“I always think like this. If you can try for as much as you can get it will always be better for you. Nobody cares that we have been four years out of this situation. The history and the demands of the club are so massive that we need to respond on a daily basis, so trying to finish second really matters.”
A visit by Rangers to Pittodrie has been a grudge match since the days when Sir Alex Ferguson was Dons manager but the customary hostility is not to be compared to the reception afforded to Caixinha during his spell as a coach in Mexico. “They are so passionate, they are so violent when you arrive at the stadiums,” he said.
“They were greeting us using their fingers to make gestures—I used to count them and say, ‘We are losing 20-0!’ But I like these kinds of environments.
“We have clashes between two cities, two clubs that have a big rivalry and I love to be there under these circumstances. I need to live the game.
“For example, when I was in Qatar there were 100 people watching, sometimes 200. Maybe we might have 1,500 for a special match but no more than that.
“I’m an intense guy. I was reviewing our last match on Friday morning and thinking to myself that I had missed this environment.
“I was missing the passion, I was missing people watching games, supporting us and others being against us. This is football.
“This is one of the challenges that brought me here. I could be in Qatar where the temperature will be a lot higher than Glasgow and you receive fantastic wages. It’s not what brought me here. I came for challenges and the main one if raising Rangers to the position they deserve.
“I can’t speak about the whole season or the last four years. But I am trying to be as realistic as I can be. I am assessing the players on a daily basis. I need to make demands of them so that I can get to know them in different scenarios.”
St Johnstone, meanwhile, closed to within three points of Rangers when they beat Inverness where Steven McLean’s early strike put Richie Foran’s struggling team under pressure in the Highland capital and Liam Craig secured victory – on his 300th appearance for the Perth club – with a late penalty conversion after Graham Cummins was brought down. To make matters worse for Inverness, Larnell Cole was sent off after a confrontation with the referee saw him shown two yellow cards.
At Tynecastle, Hearts and Dundee were both beleaguered after runs of poor form but it was the home side who found a degree of relief when Ismael Goncalves netted the only goal of the game early in the proceedings.
Hamilton drew 1-1 away to Ross County while Partick Thistle celebrated a top six finish when the ever-reliable Kris Doolan scored the crucial goal against Motherwell at Firhill.
Celtic, of course, stowed the title away with their 5-0 thrashing of Hearts last Sunday and they treated their fans to yet another victory, this time over Kilmarnock at Parkhead, where Stuart Armstrong opened the scoring with a powerful 25-yard drive midway through the first half. Jordan Jones brought Killie level with a deflected shot after the break but the Ayrshire side were outdistanced by goals from Scott Sinclair and James Forrest in a 3-1 defeat.