Having spent most of 2021 watching the relative positions of themselves and Hibernian trending almost entirely in one direction, Aberdeen will probably not have circled Saturday’s loss to Celtic as the one on which they would start eating into what has become a worryingly wide gap.
Granted, with the Dons attack remaining toothless, it was the daintiest possible nibble rather than a voracious bite.
But with the pre-match odds strongly suggesting that wounded Celtic and plummeting Motherwell would combine to send Hibs even further off into the third-place sunset, even the reduction, by one, of the Reds’ goal difference deficit is better than the afternoon could have brought.
It is only through an unexpected favour from the Steelmen that Aberdeen remain in touch for the Europa League spot and they will be unashamedly crossing their fingers for more in the weeks ahead.
Even if the Dons win both of their remaining pre-split fixtures – far from a given for a team which has now gone an extraordinary 10 games without scoring from open play – they would reach the final straight outside the top three unless Hibs collect fewer than two points on their travels around the country over the next three Saturdays.
It is not a simple case of whoever occupies the spot at the split being the presumptive third-place finisher.
But if Hibs can stay out of arm’s reach, preventing the sides’ final head-to-head from being winner-takes-all, they will have a huge advantage.
That by the end of February the attainment of Aberdeen’s minimum target thus already relies on aid from St Johnstone, Ross County and Livingston confirms their efforts have been far from sufficient under their own steam.
Unless this does prove a turning point and the arrears are already as big as they will get, Derek McInnes will soon be beyond help.