The great wall was finally breached, just not at the old Beach End of Pittodrie. The red card received by influential defender Virgil van Dijk after only 11 minutes left many wondering whether this was going to be the night when Celtic would finally surrender their shut-out record, and so it proved.
Scorers: Aberdeen - Hayes 41′ Rooney 45′; Celtic - Forrest 62
But they simply redoubled efforts to preserve their unbeaten record with a second-half comeback from 2-0 down in which substitute James Forrest halved the deficit, and kept things very interesting until the end.
Over 16,000 spectators witnessed Aberdeen avenge their goalkeeper Bobby Clark, whose shut-out record of 1,155 minutes in the league had been broken by Fraser Forster on Saturday. The Celtic goalkeeper had extended it to 1,214 minutes before kick-off last night but was able to last only another 41 minutes before he was finally beaten.
There was at least consolation in knowing that he was beaten by a very special strike by Jonny Hayes, whose dipping effort was struck from 30 yards out. Perhaps predictably, a second soon followed, by Adam Rooney, but the expectation that Aberdeen would then ease to victory was contradicted by a strong second-half showing by Celtic, who pulled a goal back when Forrest stabbed home from just outside the six-yard box.
But the visitors’ hopes of prolonging their bid to reach the end of the league season without losing perished on a night in the north-east that always looked potentially ruinous to their ambitions. Aberdeen returned to winning ways after their own setback on Saturday against Partick Thistle.
Having seen his side become so uncharacteristically generous in the second half in Glasgow, manager Derek McInnes chose to make two changes in defence. Skipper Russell Anderson and right-back Joe Shaughnessy dropped to the bench with two loan signings, Alan Tate and Shaleum Logan, stepping in. Although goalkeeper Jamie Langfield had to be alert in the opening minutes to stop a Charlie Mulgrew drive, this home rearguard wasn’t tested as much as might have been expected in the opening period.
The swirling wind and rain did not help either side put together moves of worth. Indeed, it might have been a reason for the attritional nature of the proceedings. Even before Van Dijk’s early departure, Aberdeen centre-half Andrew Considine was booked for a poor foul on Scott Brown. Celtic wasted the free kick and soon had reason to regret doing so as they watched Van Dijk make a frantic attempt to prevent Peter Pawlett going in one-on-one with Forster after a comedy of errors in the Celtic defence.
In fact, it was not even the Celtic defence. The Celtic players had pushed high up the park towards the halfway line and there was little sign of any danger as Efe Ambrose dallied on the ball, before nearly falling over it. When he decided to pass back to Mulgrew, his team-mate was not expecting it and nearly did the splits as he tried to retrieve the situation, but it was a forlorn attempt and allowed Rooney to release Pawlett. The young Aberdeen midfielder skipped in and was bearing down on goal when Van Dijk sought to halt his progress.
While he succeeded in doing this he failed to get his toe to the ball as he lunged in on Pawlett. Like nearly everyone else inside Pittodrie, the Dutch defender knew what was coming. It must have been especially frustrating for Van Dijk, for even in the short time since kick-off he had looked to be in the mood. However, he was let down by his centre-half partner Ambrose, who was the target of some frosty stares and spiky words from his team-mates. A hard-earned unbeaten league record now looked to be in jeopardy. However, the immediate spell after Van Dijk’s red card did not anticipate the visitors’ struggles to come in the minutes before half-time.
Kris Commons easily blocked the free kick that had been awarded after Van Dijk’s foul, and with Mulgrew stepping back into defence to cover for the Dutch defender’s departure, there was no need for Celtic manager Neil Lennon to make a change by sending on a centre-half substitute – not that there was one on the bench. Celtic did lose their composure slightly with both Leigh Griffiths and then the rather hapless-looking Ambrose booked for fouls, the latter having been left for dead by the ever-threatening Pawlett.
Rooney should have managed to get something on a dangerous cross from the left by Hayes just after the half-hour mark, as the home supporters began to fear an evening of frustration against a packed Celtic defence, as the visitors sought to compensate for the loss of a man. Celtic might even have edged ahead after a good move down the left gave Nir Biton space in which to shoot. Langfield’s save saw the ball land just the wrong side of Griffiths as he waited to pounce.
But Aberdeen managed to secure the breakthrough just five minutes before half-time. If Celtic were going to concede a league goal, then it might as well be one that is fitting to be laden with such significance. Hayes’ effort from fully 30 yards actually looked as though it would clear Forster’s bar when it first left his boot. However, it dipped at just the right moment and left Forster without a chance of extending his proud-shut-out record. The ball was behind him in flash and the Aberdeen fans erupted. Of course, scoring against Celtic is not such a novel event for the Pittodrie team. They scored twice against them just a couple of weeks ago in the cup and were also the last team to score against Celtic in the league – back in November.
Niall McGinn was the player who struck on that occasion, and he was the provider as Aberdeen capitalised on Celtic’s obvious agitation. The Northern Irishman’s cross from the right was flicked into the net by the head of Rooney. Remarkably, considering he seems to have played a number of games for the club since signing from Oldham, the strike meant he had scored on his home debut.
His first four matches have been away from Pittodrie, and he has now scored in all bar one appearance for his new club.
If any Aberdeen fan expected the second half to be a comfortable viewing experience, they were to be quickly disabused of this notion. A goal just after the hour mark by Forrest, who had replaced Commons at half-time, meant Celtic were given every encouragement to look to take something from the match, and they might well have done so had referee Craig Thomson agreed with their appeals for a penalty after Mark Reynolds had looked to have handled a long throw-in by Adam Matthews.
Aberdeen: Langfield, Logan (Anderson 83), Tate (Shaughnessy 83), Reynolds, Considine, Flood, Robson, McGinn, Pawlett (Vernon 90), Hayes, Rooney. Subs Not Used: Zola, Smith, Low, Weaver.
Celtic: Forster,Matthews, Ambrose, van Dijk, Izaguirre (Balde 89), Brown, Bitton, Commons (Forrest 46), Mulgrew, Stokes, Griffiths (Samaras 77). Subs Not Used: Boerrigter, Pukki, Zaluska, Fisher.