FOUR consecutive clean sheets. Centre halves scoring 30-yard screamers. Even the grass looks like it is growing better at Pittodrie.
No-one is saying the glory days are on course to return to Aberdeen. However, on the day that Sir Alex Ferguson returns to the city on the penultimate date of his book tour, there is a perceptible feeling that something is stirring at the club he once turned into a European force.
Aberdeen re-established themselves in second place in the league with a supremely efficient and sometimes stylish victory over a poor Partick Thistle side. While it doesn’t match the successes they once feasted on in this stadium, it was enough to send the home fans away in good cheer on a bitterly cold November’s night, the Pittodrie’s DJ’s selection of the Jam’s That’s Entertainment ringing sweetly in their ears.
Two second-half goals, the first a thrilling strike by on-loan Reading defender Michael Hector, doubled the lead secured in the opening 45 minutes through goals from Niall McGinn and Calvin Zola. McGinn scored his second goal of the night five minutes from the end. It was a convincing victory built on an assured team performance that further outlined manager Derek McInnes’ vision for the future at Aberdeen.
It doesn’t take a master tactician’s mind to fathom how McInnes wants his team to operate. His persistence in playing Zola might exasperate some supporters, but he clearly has something to offer. There were again glimpses last night of productive interlinking play from the tall striker even before he swept in Aberdeen’s second goal five minutes before half-time.
There was also a reminder of why he has struggled to convince some fans. Just five minutes had elapsed before he managed to get under Mark Reynolds’ cross and send a header high over the bar from a good position. However, he again put his shoulder to the wheel and held the ball up well, allowing McGinn, Peter Pawlett and Cammy Smith to dart in beside him and pick up lay-offs. When he left the field after 68 minutes it was to a rousing ovation from the home fans, some of whom had perhaps cheered in ironic fashion when the same player was substituted ten days ago against Hibs at Easter Road.
Zola was at least fairly fresh last night, having also been sacrificed after just 21 minutes following Joe Shaughnessy’s red card against Motherwell last midweek. Scott Vernon has more often than not been used as Zola’s second-half stand-in and he again started on the bench, alongside rested skipper Russell Anderson.
McInnes can do little wrong at the moment and few could quibble with his selection decisions last night. Zola led the line the way McInnes clearly intends for him to do and let no-one down with his application. Vernon has done well when coming off the bench and he might have to accept this role in future weeks.
It must be noted that Zola has been far from prolific so far this season. One of the two goals he had scored before last night came in Aberdeen’s 3-0 defeat of Thistle at Firhill in September.
Zola has been backed to the hilt by his manager, who has stressed that the player’s fitness is not yet what it should be as fans pondered why he is being preferred to Vernon. He looked in good condition last night as Aberdeen took almost immediate control of the proceedings.
Zola’s poor headed attempt shortly after kick-off was an inauspicious start. But he did far better after ten minutes when almost managing to turn in a cross from Jonny Hayes. A sprightly save from Scott Fox on the day he was called up to Gordon Strachan’s Scotland squad for the first time saved the moment for Thistle.
However, the goalkeeper’s good work was undone by the unfortunate Stuart Bannigan. The Thistle midfielder was identified as the fall guy when Aberdeen finally took the lead, after 25 minutes. Bannigan was positioned at the end of the wall and injudiciously chose to duck as McGinn’s free kick sped towards him.
The ball was allowed to continue on its trajectory and into the corner of Fox’s net. Frustrating Thistle further was their belief that referee Brian Colvin had erred when awarding a free-kick to Hayes after he was challenged from behind.
McGinn didn’t hang around to join in with the debate that erupted among the Thistle players after his strike and instead sprinted off towards the corner flag and slid on his knees in recognition of a perhaps overdue goal.
The Northern Irishman hasn’t scored since August for Aberdeen and last night’s strikes were only his fourth and fifth of the season, although he is being used in a wider position this term by McInnes.
Aberdeen extended their lead after 40 minutes. Pawlett did well when wriggling to the bye line. He managed to get his left boot around the ball to provide an inviting cross for Zola, who slid in and stretched out a long leg to convert while the Thistle defenders were caught standing on ceremony.
But the goal of the game was scored by a defender, and it illustrated the confidence flooding through this Aberdeen team.
Hector took a touch after a lay-off and looked up before launching a right-footed shot from nearly 30 yards into the top corner of Fox’s net. Thistle almost replied in nearly as thrilling fashion – just after the re-start Kallum Higginbotham spotted the under-employed Jamie Langfield off his line and tried to chip him from just inside the Aberdeen half. However, the ball struck the bar and came out – another sign, perhaps, that the stars were aligning in favour of Aberdeen.
McGinn wrapped up things up with five minutes to play when volleying home a fine Hector cross to give Aberdeen their biggest league win of the season.
Aberdeen: Langfield, Jack, Hector, Reynolds, Considine, Pawlett (Anderson 78), Flood, Smith (Robson 56), Hayes, Zola (Vernon 64), McGinn. Subs not used: Wylde, Low, Weaver, Shankland.
Partick Thistle: Fox, Stephen O’Donnell, Muirhead, Piccolo, Sinclair, Osbourne, Welsh, Bannigan, Craigen (Forbes 69),
Higginbotham (Baird 78), Doolan (Elliot 69).
Subs not used: Paul Gallacher, McMillan, Kerr, Mukendi.