RANGERS fans long to compete on an even footing again with Celtic, battling it out for cups and league titles to the exclusion of everyone else. There is just one problem – first they have to prove conclusively that they are the second-best team in the country.

Come the end of the season, the Ladbrokes Premiership league table won’t lie. With an eight-point advantage on Aberdeen, and another one on Kilmarnock, it will at least be something for Steven Gerrard to cling to when the Ibrox side finish best of the rest in Scotland for the first time since working their way up from the lower leagues. But, try as they might, their inability to free themselves from Aberdeen in their head-to-head meetings this season (there have been six already, with one more to follow) will come to define this 2018-19 team

Had they, for instance, been able to consistently beat Derek McInnes’ side this season – rather than win just one and lose three – they would have reached the BetFred Cup final, be preparing for a Scottish Cup semi-final against Celtic and be sitting just three points behind the Parkhead side in the table this morning. Instead they are out of two cups and left needing a miracle in the league.

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Contrast this with Celtic’s record against the Dons. Ignoring the recent goalless Parkhead draw against Neil Lennon’s side, Brendan Rodgers won 13 of his 14 meetings against Aberdeen, with the exception being a 1-0 home reverse when the Parkhead side already had the league iced and had one eye on the Scottish Cup final. No-one will have been more relieved to see Rodgers leave the country than McInnes.

For all the heady talk of challenging for league titles after the thoroughly merited 1-0 Old Firm win in December, to all intents and purposes it is still Aberdeen who Rangers must measure themselves against – whether it means attempting to recruit their best players like Ryan Jack, Kenny McLean or Graeme Shinnie.

It is a state of affairs which will persist until Rangers can conclusively put clear blue water between themselves and the chasing pack.

The big story for most of the media this season has been Gerrard’s quest for some sort of silverware to validate his entire managerial project, but McInnes was correct to point out that he is working to a different narrative. Tuesday night, after all, was a tale of two managers.

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While Gerrard was pitched into the firing line this summer, manfully filling the breach as a rookie at a club the size of Rangers, McInnes has mainly kept his counsel on the reasons why he knocked back the offer of the job during a hectic period in December 2017, a time when it didn’t help matters that the two teams should find themselves pitched into battle.

Perhaps a combination of loyalty to Aberdeen and fears about the project at Ibrox or how his appointment might be perceived, McInnes ultimately thought better of the move.

With the likes of Adam Rooney and McLean finding lucrative offers elsewhere, much like Jack’s move to Rangers the season before, there were plenty out there questioning whether he would ever have it so good again. And it hasn’t all been plain sailing.

Hearts, Motherwell, St Johnstone and Hamilton have all beaten Aberdeen on league business this season but there has been an admirable calm about the way McInnes has held the tiller, whether it was coaxing more goals out of his misfiring front players or blooding promising teenagers such as Dean Campbell and Lewis Ferguson.

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Resilient and hard to break down, there is a maturity to McInnes’ team-building, not to mention an instinctive knowledge about what works in the Scottish game.

There is always a tendency for kneejerk reactions when it comes to the Old Firm arena, but if the example of McInnes and Aberdeen proves anything, it is the merits of taking a longer-term approach. Getting locked into a cycle of hiring and firing doesn’t help team-building and I feel Gerrard has done enough to merit some time.

He certainly helped the club earn kudos and boosted their bank balance in the Europa League this season. He has the team on track for a second-place finish and has masterminded at least one famous Old Firm win this season.

There is a clear shortage of creativity about this squad – a failing he has been unable to address even by adding what appeared to be proven quality in Steven Davis – but whether it is Allan McGregor, Ryan Kent and Alfredo Morelos, the general level of player is improving.

The gap to Celtic may also be closing, although whether that remains the case six months down the line will depend on the shrewdness of signings on either side of the city. Under McInnes, meanwhile, Aberdeen show no signs of letting Scottish football lapse back to the cosy duopoly of old.