Europa League group stage aim for settled Derek McInnes

Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes on the training field. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS
Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes on the training field. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS
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A mere month on from their heart-breaking Scottish Cup final defeat to Celtic, Aberdeen will tonight turn their thoughts to knockout cup action again.

Since he is still in the process of re-building his squad, manager Derek McInnes will be glad his side are not actively involved. But he will keep an eye on the result between Siroki Brijeg and Ordabasy Shymkent tonight and has sent a scout to watch the first leg in Bosnia and Herzegovina on his behalf.

The prospect of another chance to reach the Europa League group stage is one 
reason why McInnes felt able to turn down the opportunity to manage Sunderland.

Aberdeen must first negotiate three hurdles, starting next month against the winners of the Siroki Brijeg and Ordabasy tie, if they are to reach the group stage for the first time in four attempts under McInnes.

“It is getting harder and harder but that [reaching the group stage] is the intention,” said the Pittodrie manager.

“It is something to aim for. You need a bit of good fortune over the ties and with the draw but we will need to try and navigate the first one but the intention is to get as far as we can.

“Progress can be judged in many ways,” added McInnes. “Last season we beat our own points tally in the league, which is important. You can judge progress by winning another cup or by getting to the group stages. Whatever it is there is still plenty to play for and plenty of opportunities.”

Aberdeen fell at their third hurdle last season, beaten 2-1 on aggregate by Slovenia’s MK Maribor. They last reached the group stage under Jimmy Calderwood in 2007-2008. McInnes agrees getting back there again is one way to improve on last season, when Aberdeen established themselves as unbeaten Celtic’s challengers in all three major domestic competitions.

But if they are to succeed in this aim they must negotiate a tough trip to either the Balkans or Kazakhstan, where Aberdeen lost to Kairat Almaty in the third qualifying round two years ago. It’s likely they will pay a return visit to the country, with reports indicating Ordabasy are the more formidable of the teams battling to meet Aberdeen.

“It is unusual for us because we normally know who we are playing,” said McInnes, who is taking things seriously enough to order dossiers on both potential opponents. “Now we are the seeded team. We have staff dealing with either side. We have a good opportunity to see them over the next couple of days and we also have footage of them.

“We have a handle on them and whoever we get they will provide a decent level of opposition.

“Whoever we get we will need to be ready for it. We have the experience of the last few years and hopefully over the next three weeks we can get players in and ready for that first game.

“We will need to play well, I imagine, to get through it,” he added. “It’s difficult to tell as both teams look good in their own league.”

McInnes will be without last season’s skipper Ryan Jack, who looks likely to make his Rangers debut in the same competition against Luxembourg side Progres Niederkorn at Ibrox tonight.

The Aberdeen manager stripped Jack of the armband for the Scottish Cup final.

But McInnes was keen to stress he has no problem with either the midfielder or Jonny Hayes, who left for Celtic earlier this summer in a £1.3 million deal, as they 
pursue their career objectives.

While Hayes left with McInnes’ blessing the same could not be said of Jack. But McInnes insisted it is water under the bridge now.

“Players make their decisions and we wish them well with that,” he said. “There is no animosity at all. I will speak to every one of my players who have left in the future.

“I have not spoken about 
Jonny yet as last time I spoke [to reporters] Jonny was still an Aberdeen player. Let me tell you he leaves with our best wishes and I can understand the disappointment that we haven’t managed to keep him.

“But we would rather concentrate on the players who do come in and the players that are committed to driving the standards on.”

McInnes was fulfilling media duties for the first time since a turbulent few days at the end of last month. He watched helplessly as Aberdeen lost the Scottish Cup final to a last-minute winner having also learned he was Sunderland’s preferred choice as manager. McInnes turned down the opportunity to become David Moyes’ successor. But a mix of frustration over the Hampden result and anxiety about such a significant career choice meant he suffered sleepless nights on holiday in Florida.

So he’s glad to be back in the warm embrace of Aberdeen locals who also fretted about the manager’s intentions. “I have come back into the city over the last few days and it has been good,” said McInnes. “The warmth I have felt and with what we have created here, seeing the staff and everybody at the club, means it will be a big wrench when we leave here, whenever that is.

“I do feel it was a nervous time for a lot of people. The decision has been made now. It is good to get cracking on.”