Aberdeen will have to settle for fourth place in the Scottish Premiership for the third season in a row after Hibernian clinched third with a hard fought victory at Pittodrie.
The quality in the final third was the difference as Stephen Glass’ hopes of taking the fight for third to the final game of the season came unstuck against his former club.
Christian Doidge’s excellent finish just before half-time gave Hibs the lead and crucially, control of a tense encounter.
Aberdeen had no option but to throw caution to the wind in the second half but they came up short as Hibs claimed victory.
That the Dons should come up just short should come as no surprise. They had effectively left themselves with too much to ground to make up following a miserable run at the turn of the year with results in January and February handing Hibs the initiative.
Jack Ross’ side have offered Aberdeen glimmers of hope that the gap could be overhauled but they had enough to finally get over the line when it mattered.
While the Easter Road outfit can now turn their attention to next weekend’s Scottish Cup final Dons boss Glass must now address what has been apparent for some time – this Aberdeen team needs fresh blood.
Scott Brown and Declan Gallagher are the first of the new faces confirmed but an attacking spark and a finisher have become the clear priorities.
This was effectively win or bust territory for the Dons with Hibs having a three point advantage and a superior goal difference and Aberdeen’s need was emphasised by the 4-1-4-1 formation of the side.
Ryan Hedges was the one change from the team which won at Livingston and he replaced Niall McGinn out wide.
The central attackers were Jonny Hayes and Lewis Ferguson and it was Hayes who created Aberdeen’s first chance as he crossed for Callum Hendry who saw his header easily saved by Matt Macey in the Hibs goal.
The Dons were desperate for an early goal and Ferguson had an appeal for a penalty waved away by referee John Beaton after claiming he had been pulled back by Christian Doidge when trying to get on the end of Hendry’s downward header.
The visitors responded with two chances of their own. Kevin Nisbet saw a shot saved by Gary Woods before the Dons goalkeeper easily held Darren McGregor’s glancing header.
Clear-cut chances were at a premium in what was a tense first half but the Dons squandered their best opportunity to break the deadlock six minutes before the break when Flo Kamberi found space in the box before picking out Hedges. The Wales international mishit shot fell to Hendry but he blazed his effort over the crossbar.
Aberdeen rued that missed chance almost immediately and it was Christian Doidge, a one-time Dons target, who put Hibernian in front with his 13th goal of the season.
A McGregor diagonal ball was glanced on by Hedges to Josh Doig. He passed to Jackson Irvine who fed Doidge and the striker took a touch with his left before firing low past Woods from the edge of the box with his right.
It was a terrific finish from the Hibs forward and a pivotal one which left Aberdeen needing to score twice in the second half. Given the team which has scored first in this fixture in the three previous meetings it was no mean feat.
An uphill task almost became a mountainous one within three minutes of the restart as Jackson Irvine chested down a Martin Boyle cross but his effort clipped the crossbar.
Aberdeen needed a goal but they were again wasteful in front of goal as Kamberi fired high over the crossbar after being set-up by Hendry following neat build-up play between the on-loan St Johnstone striker and Ferguson.
It was now or never for the Dons as the game passed the hour mark and Ferguson went close with a low drive which was tipped away for a corner by Macey.
It became increasingly desperate into the final 10 minutes when substitute Niall McGinn headed a Connor McLennan cross wide but that was close as the home side came to a lifeline.
Just like the season as a whole Aberdeen had come up short.
ABERDEEN (4-1-4-1) – Woods 6, McLennan 6, Hoban 6, Considine 6, MacKenzie 6, McGeouch 7, Hedges (McGinn 81) 6, Ferguson 6, Hayes (Kennedy 53) 5, Kamberi 5, Hendry (Hornby 84) 6. Subs not used – Ritchie, Ross, Campbell, Gallagher, Ruth, Ramsay.
HIBERNIAN – (4-3-3) – Macey 6, McGinn 6, Hanlon 6, McGregor 7, Doig (Stevenson 66) 6, Gogic 7, Hallberg (Magennis 53) 5; Irvine 6, Boyle 6, Doidge 7, Nisbet (Murphy 66) 6. Subs not used – Dabrowski, Porteous, Gray, Wright, Newell.
Referee – John Beaton 7
Man of the match – Christian Doidge.