WITHOUT even looking at the cinch Premiership table, you can already sense there is a title race on. Every point gained or dropped, every chance taken or squandered, every misplaced pass, mistimed tackle, refereeing decision, tactical change, post-match comment, even the demeanour of players on and off the pitch is pored over with the kind of forensic scrutiny normally reserved for Donald Trump’s tax returns.

On Tuesday night, it was the turn of referee Don Robertson to have his motivations and competency examined after he showed a straight red card to Rangers midfielder Dujon Sterling for a late challenge on Aberdeen’s Jack MacKenzie at Ibrox. The home side were leading 2-1 when the Englishman charged then slid in in the middle of the park with just a couple of minutes remaining and caught the Pittodrie midfielder with his studs.

Glasgow Times: Referee Don Robertson shows Dujon Sterling a straight red cardReferee Don Robertson shows Dujon Sterling a straight red card (Image: PA)READ MORE: MSP reacts to Celtic pyro incident amid 'loss of life' worry

After Robertson reached for his top pocket, he was soon clutching his earpiece in what has become typical fashion whenever a significant decision is made. It is usually a foregone conclusion at this point that the original call will be overturned, but after reviewing the incident on the pitchside monitor Robertson stuck to his gut and the ordering off stood. After the match, Rangers swiftly appealed the decision but at a fast-track tribunal yesterday the decision was upheld by a panel appointed by the Scottish FA.

The stakes could scarcely be higher for Celtic and Rangers this year. Next season the Scottish champions are guaranteed qualification to the Champions League, but there will be no such luxury secured after that. There are also significant changes afoot in Europe’s elite club competition, with the 32-team group stage replaced with a single 36-team league, with teams playing an increased eight matches (four home and away). This will all provide even greater financial rewards and increase the weight of this title race between Brendan Rodgers’ champions and Philippe Clement’s contenders.

When placed under this kind of microscope, different individuals react differently. For blond bombscare Trump, for example, his reaction to adversity is to double down, admit nothing, threaten his enemies and his allies. If his polling for becoming the nominee for the Republican candidacy for president is anything to go by, his approach works with his supporters, too.

Glasgow Times: Rangers manager Philippe Clement celebrates against AberdeenRangers manager Philippe Clement celebrates against Aberdeen (Image: Getty)READ MORE: Concerned clubs demand answers on SPFL governance report

It was in this regard that Clement announced himself as a politically astute operator within the heated brickbats swirling around the Old Firm colosseum (even the use of that term has become a rhetorical hot potato in recent times). In the wake of a chastening defeat to Celtic before the winter break, the Belgian refused to apportion any of the blame on his misfiring players in the heat of battle at Celtic Park as Paulo Bernardo and Kyogo Furuhashi put the Scottish champions on easy street before Leon Balogun was sent off with 20 minutes remaining. Club captain James Tavernier salvaged some pride with a late wonder-strike, but the three points were safely held in the east end of the city.

Clement blamed VAR. The incident in question was an alleged handball by Celtic full-back Alistair Johnston denying Abdallah Sima inside the penalty area. He was offside, a detail not lost on the experienced former Monaco and Club Brugge manager.

It was interesting that the broad-church Sky Sports panel consisting of Kris Boyd, James McFadden and Neil Lennon were all adamant during their half-time thrashings that referee Nick Walsh should have pointed to the spot, and when it was later revealed that Sima had been in an offside position, the spotlight turned to VAR official Willie Collum, whose unwillingness to share the process which led to the eventual decision was later criticised. Rangers continued to pull the VAR conspiracy thread frayed by Clement in his post-match interview when they released a statement seeking clarifications from the Scottish FA over the VAR process, and insisted that Collum be excluded from officiating their matches.

Amidst the frosty exchanges between the governing body and the Ibrox club, it felt like the winter break couldn’t come soon enough, and after finishing the year with a routine 3-1 win over Kilmarnock, Rangers desisted, jetting off to their warm-weather training camp in Spain while apparently jettisoning the issue altogether.

But cue another contentious refereeing decision this week. Cue another Sky Sports panel unanimously declaring that Robertson was harsh to order off the Rangers player. Cue VAR process inquests, appeals to the governing body, slowed-down replays and still shots of point of contact. Usually these still-frame images magnify the severity of a challenge, but in this particular instance Robertson performed his role in real time just how most of us who bristle against VAR’s over-reach in Scottish football wish all match officials would: he stuck to his guns.

On the field of play, Robertson was in the centre circle, maybe 20 yards away from Sterling when Ross McCausland sold his team-mate short with a hospital pass from the right touchline. Aberdeen captain Graeme Shinnie nicked in and dispossessed the Englishman and the ball trundled five yards or so towards MacKenzie. The action leading to the foul began at this point, and in only in real time does one get the full picture.

Glasgow Times: Dujon Sterling catches Jack MacKenzie with a late challenge at IbroxDujon Sterling catches Jack MacKenzie with a late challenge at Ibrox (Image: Getty)READ MORE: Aberdeen's Miovski addresses Celtic & Rangers transfer links

Many former-professional pundits echo the cliché that referees don’t understand what it is like to play the game. But anyone who has played an organised game of football knows exactly what Sterling was going through in this moment. It was the 88th-minute, tensions were high, and Sterling, determined to atone for losing possession and frustrated at the quality of the pass from his team-mate, charged towards his opponent at considerable pace. MacKenzie got his left foot to the ball and on the half-volley cleared it forward. The Rangers player was already performing a sliding challenge at this point and with his own left foot made full contact with MacKenzie’s standing right boot with his studs. It was not only mistimed, but there was no evidence whatsoever that Sterling played the ball. It was a tired and frustrated challenge – not malicious – but completely out of control. And only in real time was the justification for the colour of card produced to be seen.

Glasgow Times: Aberdeen's Jack MacKenzie stays down after Sterling challengeAberdeen's Jack MacKenzie stays down after Sterling challenge (Image: Getty)READ MORE: Why Celtic great sidestepped a war of words with Rangers manager

Clement, in his post-match protestations in the bowels of Celtic Park at the turn of the year, may have been speaking in defeat, but he was well aware that his words would carry weight for the remainder of the season. It didn’t matter that what he was protesting about was a political strawman, his main concern was in keeping the heat off his team and projecting it elsewhere, namely at the match officials and VAR team.

With the margins so fine and every point a prisoner, this ruthless approach will no doubt play well with supporters. Whether it leads to victory or not remains to be seen.