ABERDEEN fans thronged Pittodrie yest-erday for the rare privilege of having their title ambitions exposed as a pipe dream.
The bulk of the 18,083 crowd, the club's biggest in the league for six years, turned up hoping for a return to the mid-1980s when these two clubs were going toe to toe.
But what they got was a glimpse of Scottish football's future rather than its past. Two goals in the last 20 minutes saw Celtic pull away from their hosts at the top of the SPL, proving the words of Parkhead chairman Ian Bankier at the club's agm rather prescient when he said Neil Lennon's side could soon be in a "league of their own".
The challenge for Lennon was to beat one of Celtic's closest domestic rivals, after what had been the club's worst start, mathematically at least, to an SPL season since the days of Jo Venglos, yet keep enough in the tank for what promises to be a momentous Champions League encounter in Lisbon on Tuesday night.
This he duly achieved and, having given Scott Brown, Gary Hooper and Joe Ledley a few more days to recover, the manager was hopeful all three will be fit to play in the crucial Group G match against Benfica.
Kris Commons should be fit despite leaving the action early with a dead leg, as should Miku Fedor after undergoing a minor procedure, but Lennon was less optimistic about the chances of James Forrest.
Perhaps the best news of all, though, was the cameo from Lassad Nouioui, the Tunisian coming off the bench to score his first goal for the club – before Charlie Mulgrew wrapped up the points – after an injury-affected start to his time in Glasgow.
The former Deportivo La Coruna striker reacted quickly after a shot from Victor Wanyama rebounded off the upright. "His performance was superb," Lennon said. "He is a great asset and hopefully he can stay injury free now. He will be good to have in the squad against Benfica."
On a heavy, bobbly pitch, Lennon went with a 4-3-3 shape and Craig Brown's answer was a 3-4-3, in which twin wingers Ryan Fraser and Johnny Hayes supported Niall McGinn, for whom a goal yesterday would have equalled Frank McDougall's record of scoring in eight successive league matches, but he saw little joy all afternoon.
There was a stalemate in the opening stages, but it wasn't for the want of trying. Hayes was first to threaten, firing into the side netting, before striking a shot which was too close to Fraser Forster, before Fraser did likewise with an almost identical effort.
At the other end, Celtic's height threatened menace from every cross and set-piece, even if the low sun wasn't exactly helping their efforts.
Wanyama and Mikael Lustig both headed wide from promising positions, and Tony Watt was denied his seventh goal of the season when his close-range header from Commons' pinpoint cross struck the foot of the post.
Jamie Langfield, the man whose error settled the first match between these teams this season, clutched a Mulgrew free-kick as the second period began but Aberdeen's threat diminished when Fraser was inadvertently poleaxed by Beram Kayal as the Israeli attempted to block his quick free-kick.
The teenager went off minutes later with what appeared to be a stomach problem.
The match looked to be heading towards a goalless conclusion until Lassad's introduction –and goal – turned the tide. Celtic's second followed when Georgios Samaras, sporting a plaster on his forehead, cut in from the left and when his effort fell to Mulgrew the Scotland international marked his 100th Celtic appearance by guiding the ball into the bottom corner of Langfield's net. The former Aberdeen man celebrated by cupping his ears towards the fans who used to idolise him.
Wanyama had an effort disallowed for offside, and Watt fired wide, but Celtic had done enough.
"They had lost to other teams in the SPL and I had hoped there might be a chance to get a victory," said Aberdeen manager Craig Brown. "But that is the measure of champions: they win when they need to get a result."