THE rivalry between Motherwell and Aberdeen has become quite something in recent years.
Cup exits, defecting managers (and players), and now this compelling battle for second place in the SPFL Premiership which not so long ago looked like it might stay wide open.
Since Christmas, though, the race has been mostly between just these two stubborn runners after Dundee United's young pretence was shattered - for now, at least - and John Hughes started to turn things around - the wrong way - at Inverness Caledonian Thistle.
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Today's rivals have also been bizarrely incapable of beating each other on their own turf. When Motherwell won 1-0 at a packed Pittodrie on Boxing Day thanks to a Lionel Ainsworth goal, it should have come as no surprise to anyone - it was 2008 when Aberdeen last defeated the Fir Park side at home. On the other hand, Motherwell have already lost to Derek McInnes' side twice in Lanarkshire this season, and in recent years have suffered more cup heartache at north-eastern hands than anywhere else. If the chaos of the draw was not behind that incessant liaising, you might have figured them for masochists.
And in good news for neutrals, there is also likely to be a win, one way or another - the last time either team deigned to share the spoils was way back in September. "It's got the makings of a good contest," admitted Stuart McCall, the Motherwell manager. "Two good sides, both in a good wee bit of form, although we're both on the back of defeats. Prior to that, though, we were both in good form. Certainly on the road Aberdeen have been really strong recently and likewise our home performances have been good.
"Derek has done terrifically well. When you attract the support Aberdeen have you're always going to be under the spotlight.
"I think he inherited a good squad, but he's definitely made it better. It's no surprise to me, I've got to say, they are where I expected them to be, but that doesn't mean we can't give them a right good game."
McCall and his opposite number today spent several years together at Rangers, of course, at the tail end of the 1990s. In a squad which has since seen a few players graduate to management - Barry Ferguson is the latest after taking charge at Blackpool this week - the Motherwell manager said McInnes was someone who long had an eye on crossing the line into coaching.
"He was always inquisitive in the game, you could see he was always a thinker," said McCall. "He always wanted to listen and improve and take things on board. He was one of a few you would have looked at Rangers and you would have said 'yeah, he'll go on and have a crack at it'. Which he has, it's not a surprise."
McInnes was equally effusive when asked about the minor miracles McCall has performed over the last two or three years, constantly having to replace his best players and return strong enough to challenge every team in the league except Celtic. The Aberdeen manager cited a consistency of philosophy for that success, despite wholesale dressing room upheaval.
"Although there have been a lot of changes there is still a familiarity when you look at Motherwell," said McInnes. "There's a sameness to how they play; so it's no surprise they are still up at the top end of the league.
"Stuart has done some job keeping Motherwell up there. They bounce back and for me that's the sign of a good team and a good club. They have done that time and again this season, have shown real consistency and deserve to be where they are."
McInnes is prepared to dismiss as a blip his team's below-par display when Inverness won at Pittodrie a week ago, but the Aberdeen manager is unlikely to countenance a similar failure this afternoon, knowing that losing even a little ground now could prove harmful to their aspirations of finishing second.
"We've had a couple of good wins against Motherwell," he said. "The performances were different. In the first game, we had a lot of pace and sparkle to the way we played. In the second game [a Scottish League Cup tie last October] it was more about guts and determination after going down to 10 men.
"It will take something similar this weekend to get a win. Motherwell have beaten us as well [this season] so we know the quality and competitiveness they have. Aberdeen have always been looking up at them sitting above us in the table, so to be in around them is a clear sign that we've improved this season. We want to keep that improvement going."