A CHALLENGE to Celtic's supremacy next season seems more like wishful thinking among neutrals than a genuine possibility.
With Rangers again absent from the SPFL Premiership - for possibly the final time - the path is clear for Neil Lennon and his players to stroll to what would be their fourth consecutive championship. Frankly, there is more chance of a pantomime horse winning next year's Grand National than there is of the league trophy leaving Glasgow for the first time in 30 years.
There is a feeling growing, however, that Aberdeen - the last team outwith Celtic or Rangers to win the title back in 1985 - may be best placed to put up something of a fight. After years in the doldrums, there is renewed optimism in the north-east as the Derek McInnes revolution gathers pace. League Cup finalists, quarter-finalists in the William Hill Scottish Cup and second in the league table, this is shaping up to be Aberdeen's best season since they won both domestic cups and finished as league runners-up to Rangers in 1990.
Two wins over Celtic in the past month are thrust forward evidence that Aberdeen hold the Indian sign over the Parkhead side and could therefore push them all the way next season. The Scottish Cup victory at Celtic Park was as impressive as it was unexpected, with Tuesday night's league win at Pittodrie proving it was not a fluke, while also ending both Celtic's clean-sheet record and their unbeaten run in the league. It would be a big ask to expect Aberdeen to produce such form over 38 games next year, but the prospect of them possibly doing so has been welcomed by those inside the Celtic camp.
"They're a strong team with really good players," Charlie Mulgrew said of Aberdeen, his former club. "But we welcome the challenge next year. I've played up there; Aberdeen are a big club who have a lot of loyal supporters. If there's a challenge there next season, we'd welcome it.
"There's no reason why they can't because they have a great squad that can be built on during the summer. If they do, it would bring the best out in us. And a strong Aberdeen would benefit the whole of Scottish football."
Since their Scottish Cup exit, Celtic had been kept motivated by the prospect of Fraser Forster breaking the British clean-sheet record and the team going through the season undefeated in the league. Now both are gone it seems there is little to inspire the players until the day they are crowned champions for a third year in a row. Reaching 100 league points remains one last target but, ahead of the club's tribute to Fergus McCann at tomorrow's match against Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Mulgrew insists the players should not need fired up whenever they take to the field.
"Motivation won't be a problem for us," he added. "We're looking to bounce back right away with a win on Saturday. At a club like Celtic there's always something to play for. Every time you put the Hoops jersey on, that should be motivation enough. The fans demand that and so does the manager.
"You have to win games for Celtic. The fans expect that and it's up to us to stand up to that challenge. The league title is taken a bit for granted now because Rangers aren't in the league. But it's still hard work to get there. At the start of the season, Celtic are the team with everything to lose. The pressure is right on us so it's still a great achievement."
Talk of this championship being any less of an achievement given Celtic were never under any sustained pressure is dismissed by Mulgrew. "I've won a league with Rangers challenging us but if we win this one, it'll mean just as much.
"It's another title for me. When Rangers are in the league it's neck-and-neck - but we only play them four times a season. There are other games to win and we've won them this season. It's still massive for us to win the championship this year.
"It's harder work than people give it credit. You still have to win the games and every week teams raise their game against you. We'd love to get to 100 points this season, we want to get as many as we possibly can between now and the end of the campaign.
"We're hurting after the Aberdeen defeat but there's a determination now to start a new unbeaten run. That's the way it has always been here, the manager is on top of you, keeping you motivated. We know exactly what he's looking for at the weekend."