The term ‘third’ carries weight in the Scottish Premiership – £5m and a guaranteed European place, in fact.
Hearts know that well, having finished behind Celtic and Rangers last season and enjoyed a run in the Europa Conference League.
This season, the accolade of finishing third seemed to have been theirs already after a strong start to the season coupled with relative crises developing at Hibernian and Aberdeen.
But February and March have brought the latter two back into the contest with four games to go before the split and one key encounter of two of the teams concerned on the horizon.
Aberdeen leapt above Hibs by beating Hearts on Saturday and the managerless Pittodrie side are now only four points behind their Tynecastle rivals, who are on a run of three straight defeats in all competitions.
Hibs lost but were not embarrassed at Celtic Park and, prior to recent defeats by the Old Firm, were on a good run.
So who will emerge as the best of the rest over the final weeks of the season?
Hearts out of sorts
One league win in February and the same again in March is not a good run.
Rousing January wins over Hibs and Aberdeen cranked up the pressure on their managers and Jim Goodwin soon departed the Dons after another heavy defeat at Easter Road and the cup exit at Darvel.
But convincing losses to Rangers and Celtic appear to have knocked the stuffing out Robbie Neilson’s side, with Saturday’s 3-0 defeat at Aberdeen prompting the manager to exclaim: “Not good enough.”
Injury interrupted the impressive campaigns of Robert Snodgrass and top scorer Lawrence Shankland and, while both returned at Pittodrie, it was their team-mates at the other end of the park that were the most culpable.
Former Hearts winger Neil McCann commented on BBC Sportscene: “He did try and ring the changes. Robbie would’ve been really angry with the performance because they were so flat.”
Hearts will resume after the international break against struggling Kilmarnock, then host St Mirren before the third league Edinburgh derby of the season at Easter Road, with Hibs winless in the fixture since 2019.
Aberdeen quietly creeping higher
Much like Motherwell of late, a change in manager has revitalised Aberdeen somewhat.
After chastening defeats by St Mirren and Celtic, interim boss Barry Robson has pieced together three straight wins after an earlier battling victory over Motherwell.
Should they keep winning, the Dons can only benefit from points dropped by either or both sides when Hibs host Hearts on 15 April. Aberdeen will have played the prevous day at struggling Ross County.
Uncertainty remains over the future of the manager’s position, although speculation suggests Robson is now the favourite. And, as former Aberdeen captain Richard Foster told Sportscene: “He can only keep winning games.”
Before the trip to County, Aberdeen visit St Johnstone and host Kilmarnock.
Hibs derailed by Old Firm
Despite having to cope with Kevin Nisbet’s absence, Hibs were on a run of five games unbeaten, including four wins. Elie Youan came to the fore with five goals during that period.
However, a punishing 4-1 defeat at home by Rangers and a battling loss at Celtic Park with 10 men have allowed Aberdeen to climb above them. Youan was the player dismissed in Glasgow following two bookings.
However, Lee Johnson took heart from the performance, which was an improvement on their 6-1 loss at Celtic Park earlier in the season.
“We looked disciplined, organised, and showed how far we’ve come since the previous time we played here,” said the Englishman. “We tried to play as well but had to defend for our lives.”
Before they host Hearts, they will welcome Motherwell and visit bottom side Dundee United.
Former Hibs manager Jim Duffy commented Sportsound: “It’s great to see our big clubs competing at the top end of the table. The likes of Hibs, they should be up there challenging for European places.
“Every game will be so important now. No-one can switch off between now and the end of the season.”