Mark McGhee. Gordon Strachan. Willie Miller. Alex McLeish. Jim Leighton. The names trip off Neil Lennon's tongue as easily as they would any Aberdeen fan. The Celtic manager was an 11 year-old boy living in Northern Ireland when the Pittodrie club defeated Real Madrid to lift the Cup Winners Cup but that team and what they achieved remains fresh in his mind. In 1983 there was little of the wall-to-wall football prevalent these days and so this was an occasion to be cherished."You only have to look at John Hewitt's [winning] goal, it was a classic," he says, recalling the memory as if it were yesterday. "Great run by McGhee, great cross and then a diving header into the top corner. It was magic. I loved that team."

The subsequent years, though, have not been so kind to Aberdeen. The Gothenburg Greats, managed by plain old Alex Ferguson as he was back then, set the bar so high that it is hardly a surprise that no side has come close to matching those achievements in the three decades that have followed.

Now, though, there is something stirring in the north-east once more. Rangers' removal from the picture has opened things up at the top and there is a feeling that this is an Aberdeen side capable of taking advantage. Victory over Celtic at lunchtime would allow them to leapfrog their opponents and also take them to the top of the Clydesdale Bank Premier League – for a few hours at least.

The resources available to manager Craig Brown would suggest this position should be the norm for Aberdeen and that recent years have been blighted by underachievement. Lennon thinks along similar lines.

"They are a big club; a sleeping giant you could call them in a lot of respects," he added. "I was speaking to John Clark who was up there for quite a while and he says it's a great club and a great place to live. So it is surprising that they haven't really hit the heights in recent years. They should thrive [in the absence of Rangers] as they'll never get a better opportunity. For the size of the club, their tradition, the catchment area, and the fact there's a bit of wealth up there, they should be the club that really comes to the fore. If you look at Hearts' financial predicament, the opportunity is really there for Aberdeen.

"They've got some good players in with experience. Over the last few years they've produced some good young players as well like [Fraser] Fyvie, Peter [Pawlett] and now this kid [Ryan] Fraser that I'm hearing good things about. They're on a decent run and I'm looking forward to the game. It's one our players can get their teeth into. The atmosphere will be intense and our players will thrive on that."

Much of Aberdeen's recent success can be credited to the goalscoring form of Niall McGinn. The Northern Irishman was released by Celtic in the summer after a fairly inconsequential three-year stay that concluded with a season out on loan at Brentford. McGinn has been transformed at Pittodrie from capricious winger to lethal striker and will equal a club record if he can score today for an eighth consecutive match. It could be a source of frustration or embarrassment to Lennon that the club allowed such an in-form player to move on for nothing but the Celtic manager is sanguine about how things turned out.

"If we hadn't let Niall go he probably wouldn't be doing what he's doing now," he added. "We could have kept him on and he would have been a squad player here trying to work his way into the team. He's made the most of the opportunity and it's been a good call for both parties as we've brought other players in who have thrived. Niall was here for two or three years and didn't make a consistent enough breakthrough to the team. That's no disgrace and it is no slight on him. He can look at [Charlie] Mulgrew who went away and came back and maybe he'll be one we'll look at again. I can't keep everybody, it's impossible. And I've got to be fair to these players as well."

Celtic, who have taken US international forward Juan Agudelo on trial, have not won any of their last three league games, their domestic form as average as their European pedigree has been exemplary. Lennon, though, is not unduly perturbed by the situation and points out a raft of clubs also involved in the Champions League whose standing domestically is worse than his own side. "There are clubs who are double-digit points behind their league leaders and they've got bigger budgets than us. We're two points off the top with a game in hand. So while it's been disappointing, it's not a huge concern."