ABERDEEN will bid to end an agonising wait of 18 years without silverware when facing Inverness Caledonian Thistle in the Scottish Communities League Cup Final.
The Dons last tasted glory in the same competition back in 1996 while the Highlanders, in their first appearance in the final, seek the first major trophy of their history.
Manager Derek McInnes, who signed a new contract extension on Friday along with assistant Tony Docherty, will lead the Dons out at Celtic Park in their first national showpiece for 14 years since their 4-0 Scottish Cup defeat to Rangers at Hampden Park.
Inverness, in the year of their 20th anniversary, were beaten semi-finalists last season but will be hoping to mark the occasion on Sunday with a memorable victory.
Boss John Hughes, who took over from Terry Butcher in December, could write himself in the Caley Thistle history books if he can mastermind a way past the in-form Pittodrie club.
Overriding favourites Aberdeen are on course for a cup double having set up a Scottish Cup semi-final with St Johnstone after a 1-0 win over Championship side Dumbarton last weekend.
The five-time winners survived an early red card shown to Joe Shaughnessy to secure a 2-0 win over Motherwell at Fir Park in the quarter-finals before a 4-0 thumping over Tommy Wright’s Saints in the last four.
The Highlanders received a bye to the third round, where a solitary strike from Billy McKay saw off Championship leaders Dundee at Dens Park.
A last-minute header from Ross Draper in extra time settled a controversial quarter-final against Dundee United, who saw Nadir Ciftci sent off for grabbing the throat of an assistant referee, at the Tulloch Caledonian Stadium in October.
After a 2-2 draw against Hearts after an additional 30 minutes, Caley Thistle survived the dismissals of Gary Warren and Josh Meekings to triumph on penalties in a thrilling semi-final at Easter Road.
The two sides, sitting in the top six of the Scottish Premiership, have met three times already in the league this term with the Dons holding the upper hand thus far.
Second-placed Aberdeen, who are currently 21 points behind leaders Celtic but only three ahead of Motherwell in third, claimed a 1-0 home win in late September courtesy of substitute Scott Vernon as Caley Thistle’s unbeaten start to the season came to an end.
Former Falkirk and Hibernian boss Hughes was condemned to defeat in his first home game in charge after a pulsating contest in December as Aberdeen, holding a 4-0 lead at half-time, held off a second-half fightback to win 4-3 in the Highlands.
But a first goal for the club for Danny Williams was enough to earn Inverness a deserved victory at Pittodrie in January.
An in-form Aberdeen have had the entire week to prepare at their St Andrews base as they chase a seventh win in eight games in all competitions.
But on-loan Oldham striker Adam Rooney, who has scored six goals in eight games since joining in January, is taking nothing for granted ahead of taking on his former employers.
“It is really important that you don’t get carried away because that’s when you tend to drop your standards and that’s when you get caught,” said the 25-year-old, who netted 44 times in 103 Caley Thistle appearances before moving north of the border in 2011.
“You saw that against Partick Thistle a couple of weeks back. We had been on a good run, we were going well, but we had a bit of an off-day.
“We didn’t perform the way we were capable of, so it was a bit of a wake-up call. The gaffer is always on at us, saying that regardless of who we play, we have to give 100 per cent.
“And every player has to do that because if you don’t, that’s when you can lose the games. So he will be on at us to make sure we don’t lose our concentration.
“If we do that and we all stick to the game plan, work as hard as we are capable of, then hopefully that will be enough to win the game.”
But prior to the heavy losses, Caley Thistle, who clinched their highest ever league finish last term in fourth place, went six games unbeaten in all competitions.
And captain Richie Foran believes winning the cup would be an ‘added bonus’ following the club’s remarkable rise in recent years.
“I have played in the highest league in Scotland for seven years and an added bonus would be to win the cup.
“All the players believe we can do it. No-one else is really giving us a chance.
“We are very relaxed about it. I don’t think the Aberdeen players will be as relaxed as we are having the pressure of 40,000 supporters coming to watch them.
The 33-year-old added: “It’s a game we go into with a smile on our faces and what will be, will be.”
Inverness gaffer Hughes played in the 2002 League Cup final for Ayr and led Falkirk to the 2009 Scottish Cup final as a manager, with both games ending in defeat to Rangers, and hopes his wisdom will stand the players in good stead.
“I can only pass on my experience, being there as a player and a manager – play the game, don’t get caught up in the occasion, control your emotions and don’t leave anything on the pitch. If we do that, hopefully we will bring the cup back to Inverness,” he said.
Celtic’s 60,000-capacity stadium stages the 68th League Cup final as Hampden prepares to host the forthcoming Commonwealth Games.
The action will be screened live on BBC Scotland and is available in High Definition, kicking off at 2:30pm on Sunday, 16 March.
Aberdeen and Inverness have met twice in the League Cup with the Dons winning 3-0 in 1998 and 4-1 in 2007.
The two sides have met 34 times in the past in all competitions, with Aberdeen winning 18 and Inverness just eight. However Inverness have won five of the past nine encounters.
Inverness are in their first major cup final but have played in three Challenge Cup finals in the past, winning one and losing two.
Aberdeen have won 12 of their 27 major domestic cup finals but have won five of the seven against sides other than Rangers or Celtic.
Ten of Aberdeen’s last 11 wins have been by a one-goal margin with the only exception being their 4-0 victory over St Johnstone in last month’s semi-final.
Inverness have kept five clean sheets in their last eight matches but conceded 12 goals in the other three games.
Aberdeen winger Peter Pawlett is expected to be fit after missing last weekend’s Scottish Cup clash with Dumbarton with a hip injury.
Left-back Clark Robertson, however, is still absent with a calf problem.
Otherwise, McInnes has a full squad to select from with Andrew Considine set to continue at left-back with Mark Reynolds partnering Russell Anderson in central defence.
Caley Thistle will be without the influential Gary Warren following his sending-off against Hearts in the semi-final.
But fellow centre-back Josh Meekings will be available for selection after his red card in the same game was overturned by the SFA.
Boss John Hughes shuffled the pack in midweek against Hibs with Nick Ross, Danny Devine, Danny Williams, Liam Polworth and Carl Tremarco all handed starts.
Midfielders Marley Watkins and Greg Tansey served their suspensions in midweek and return to the squad, along with Ross Draper.
Aberdeen: Langfield (GK), Weaver (GK), Rogers (GK), Logan, Shaughnessy, Anderson (C), Considine, Tate, Reynolds, McKenna, Hayes, Robson, Jack, Low, Murray, Flood, Storie, Pawlett, McGinn, Smith, Zola, Vernon, Rooney, McManus.
Inverness Caledonian Thistle: Esson (GK), Brill (GK), Raven, Meekings, Cooper, Devine, G Shinnie, Tremarco, Williams, Polworth, Watkins, Tansey, Draper, Foran (C), Doran, Ross, Vincent, Evans, Christie, Greenhalgh, Pepper, McKay.
Referee: Steven McLean (Scotland)
Assistant referees: Andrew McWilliam (Scotland) and Douglas Ross (Scotland)
Fourth Official: John Beaton (Scotland)