Betfred Cup final : Aberdeen v Celtic – What’s at stake?

A Cup final as early as November between the two best teams in the country. What’s not to love?

The side from the North-East which has been awoken from it’s slumber in the last three seasons, against the champions who have been rejuvenated since the summer arrival of one of the best young coaches in Europe.

Celtic may been the overwhelming favourites on paper and with the bookmakers, but Brendan Rodgers knows that this will be comfortably the biggest test he has faced in a domestic campaign which has, so far, been an absolute cakewalk.

In Rangers’ absence, Aberdeen have taken up the mantle of challenging Celtic and have been the second best side in the country for the last two campaigns – three if you discount a horrendous refereeing decision on the final day against Motherwell.

They may not have the budget and the quality of players to compete with the Glasgow giants over an entire season, but they have proven, in two victories over Celtic last campaign, that they can match them in a one off match.

Derek McInnes has totally transformed Aberdeen since taking over, what was at the time, a slightly poisoned chalice, with fan expectations that did not seem to match the team’s capabilities. They may have only won one trophy in McInnes’ tenure, but he has turned the squad into a team of winners who now turn up in Inverness and Kilmarnock and Dundee with the expectation of exerting their dominance and taking all three points.

He has improved the team year upon year, this summer bringing in Joe Lewis between the sticks; consistent Irishman Anthony O’Connor at the back and the exciting James Maddison – who has been one of the stars of the season. They are well placed in the league table but McInnes himself knows that silverware is required if he wants his tenure to really be remembered as the best period for Aberdeen since Sir Alex Ferguson.

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“I want to leave here on the back of an era of being successful rather than just talking about a League Cup that we won in 2014,” said McInnes, in an excellent interview with BBC Sport Scotland on Tuesday.  Their league results have been fantastic, but it is medals that should be tokens of success at a club like Aberdeen, and that is why semi-final defeats to St Johnstone and Dundee United in recent years still hurt players and supporters.

They are only one win away from a result which would cap a great period of resurgence for a club that was floundering around in domestic wilderness for so many years.

But when Celtic are the team standing in their way, one win is a big ask. The Hoops are a different beast this year, under an attacking, aggressive manager in Brendan Rodgers, who has filled his side with offensive players who play with a blistering pace that most teams in Scotland have been unable to live with.

While Rodgers signings Moussa Dembele and Scott Sinclair have been two of our game’s stand-out players, perhaps the most impressive sign of Rodgers’ influence is the effect he has had on players which were written off by most supporters during Ronny Deila’s tenure. James Forrest, while he still doesn’t score enough goals, is starting to look like the exciting winger fans hoped he would be. Tom Rogic has gone from the forgotten man to one of the first names on the teamsheet while Stuart Armstrong is enjoying the best period of his career in a new central role.

It is an enormous credit to Northern Irishman Rodgers that the league already looks done and dusted after 12 games. But with the Hoops out of Europe and seemingly strolling to six-in-a-row, surely that places some extra pressure on winning the cups. Such is the gulf that there has been between Celtic and their rivals in recent years, it is surprising that no manager has been able to achieve the treble (League Cup, Scottish Cup and league title) since Martin O’Neill in 2001. But you wouldn’t bet against this Celtic side achieving it should they overcame this Aberdeen-shaped test.

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And it should be a test. Although they have lost against Celtic twice this season, the Dons do still continue to lift their game against the bigger sides. They clearly have the advantage when it comes to preparation too, having had a full week to focus on the job in hand when the Celtic players were building themselves up to face Leo, Luis and co.

That and the loss of Sinclair, one of their most exiting attacking players, to a hamstring injury, means Aberdeen definitely shouldn’t be written off. But McInnes will know that their backline, which has so often crumbled on recent trips to Celtic Park, will have to be rock solid at the national stadium today.

Whoever wins, the Betfred Cup has been a huge success and has certainly not been devalued by the final coming so early in the season. BT sport deserve enormous credit for their excellent coverage of it, which has certainly given the others broadcasters a kick up the back side.

But the supporters that will pack into Hampden on Sunday won’t care a jot.

Will the Rodgers Revolution begin with an early trophy or will McInnes get a second piece of silverware to cement his era at Pittodrie?