Aberdeen v Motherwell: Is it a two-horse race for best of rest?
|Scottish Premiership: Aberdeen v Motherwell|
|Venue: Pittodrie Date: Wednesday, 22 January Time: 19:45 GMT|
|Coverage: Listen to updates on BBC Radio Scotland and follow live text commentary on the BBC Sport Scotland website and app|
There are 150 miles between the two, but little can separate Aberdeen and Motherwell in the Scottish Premiership table.
Just one point splits the two going into Wednesday's meeting at Pittodrie, with Stephen Robinson's visitors holding a slender lead.
But with a chasm already carved open over the chasing pack, is it already a two-horse race to be best of the rest in the Scottish top flight?
From last-gasp winners, cup battles, furious managers going viral and European exploits, BBC Scotland weighs up this week's potentially pivotal encounter.
Straight battle for third?
Only a fool would say anything is decided at this stage of the season, but already Aberdeen and Motherwell look untouchable in their quest to finish best of the rest behind Celtic and Rangers.
After 21 games, the Lanarkshire side have 37 points to Aberdeen's 36, with the latter 11 points clear of Livingston and Hibernian.
A win for either in the north east could nudge them further clear of the chasing pack, with Motherwell facing Hibs at Fir Park on Saturday perhaps offering a chance to cleave that gap open further.
Both have enjoyed a lofty perch in recent seasons. Barring 2018-19 - when Aberdeen finished fourth - one of the two sides have finished in the top three in each of the previous seven campaigns.
There has been a degree of niggle between the clubs since Aberdeen pinched their former player Mark McGhee from Motherwell and made him manager, then returned to plunder Craig Brown a year later.
But it took until Derek McInnes arrived for the Pittodrie side to come good, with a League Cup win at Fir Park in October 2013 putting them into the last four of a tournament that they would go on to win.
By February 2017, McGhee had returned to Motherwell, but suffered humiliation as Aberdeen ran out 7-2 winners. Amid the drama he was sent to the stand, then was filmed arguing with the home support.
But the Fir Park side have had their share of joy, too. Craig Reid's controversial late winner at Pittodrie in the final seconds of the 2013/14 season allowed them to beat Aberdeen to second place.
Robinson took charge at Motherwell in February 2017, and masterminded two 3-0 thumpings of Aberdeen on the way to the final of both domestic cup competitions.
Motherwell's recent renaissance
Over the last 12 months, Motherwell have been one of Scotland's most improved sides. And should they hold on to third place, they will secure European football for the first time in six years.
In the 29 league games they played in 2019, the Lanarkshire side only lost nine times - four against the Old Firm and two at the hands of Aberdeen with an aggregate score of 6-1.
However, that did not stop them picking up more points than McInnes' side across 2019, and one more so far this season.
The key has been recruitment. Despite being denied the talents of the injured David Turnbull, Motherwell have scored more goals at this stage of a season than they have since 2005-06, with the likes of Liam Polworth, Devante Cole, Jermaine Hylton and Christopher Long all making an impact.
Nine goals have also come from defender-come-midfielder Liam Donnelly, while Declan Gallagher has won Scotland honours, earning two caps in November.
Are Aberdeen on the slide?
Aberdeen are still smarting from ending last term in fourth after four consecutive second-place finishes.
McInnes has prided himself on keeping a level of consistency, though his side currently have the lowest points tally after 21 games in any of his seven seasons in charge. They have also earned fewer wins.
He has not been helped by injuries to his two flagship summer signings Craig Bryson and Funso Ojo. The former has not completed 90 minutes, while fellow midfielder Ojo has done so just four times in the league.
But Aberdeen do boast a better defensive record than Motherwell - conceding six fewer - while in Sam Cosgrove they have one of the country's top marksmen. However, the man they took from Motherwell in summer - Curtis Main - has scored just once, with another forward James Wilson failing to net in 16 appearances.
"We are roughly where we normally are," said McInnes of the points tally. "We are still on course, there or thereabouts, to get our 70 points, which normally will get us third.
"If we can get to that we know it will qualify us for Europe. The first thing is to qualify for Europe as quickly as possible. We have been in campaigns where 70 points is enough to be second in recent seasons."