HAVING swatted away Latvian side Daugava Riga in the previous round things are about to get considerably more difficult for Derek McInnes and Aberdeen.
Dutch outfit Groningen do not feature on the continent regularly, but they still play in a league that is considered much stronger than the Scottish top flight and enjoy a larger average home attendance than their opponents tonight.
Aberdeen are favourites for the first leg but slight underdogs over the two games. Two tight and tense encounters await but there is nothing to say that Aberdeen cannot advance to the next round. Here are a few things they’ll likely need to do in order to get there.
Stop Filip Kostic
The left-sided forward in Groningen’s 4-3-3 is considered to be the team’s star player. He’s strong, fast and can score goals as well as creating them. The position he occupies also makes him a nightmare for defenders to mark. With threats coming at the Aberdeen centre backs from all angles they’ll likely leave Shaleum Logan to watch Kostic. Logan can match Kostic for pace but not for power and it may be a case that Aberdeen need to cut off the supply rather than gamble that the right pass doesn’t isolate the Serbian on his marker.
To do so they’ll need to limit the effect of playmaker Tjaronn Chery. He’ll likely operate from at the apex of the midfield triangle and loves to look for through balls in order to unleash the three headed attack ahead of him. One thing he doesn’t have, however, is a lot of speed. Wilo Flood is as tireless as they come in Scottish football and his ability to continue buzz around opponents could put Chery off his game.
Stretch the game, allow the No.10 space
Aberdeen’s usual central attacking midfielder, Peter Pawlett, is a doubt for this game. If he doesn’t make it, McInnes would do well to avoid the trend of last season by using all three of Barry Robson, Ryan Jack and Wilo Flood in the centre of midfield. It subtracts that natural No.10 from the Aberdeen system and gives them a lack of penetration in the final third. Johnny Hayes played left back in the last round but he’ll likely move out of that position as his defensive deficiencies have a higher chance of being exploited by Groningen. With Andrew Considine taking his place, Hayes can move to left-midfield and allow Niall McGinn to move into the centre behind Adam Rooney should Pawlett fail to prove his fitness.
To allow the threat from the No.10 to thrive, whether it’s Pawlett or McGinn, they’ll need to open up some space. At the tail end of last season Aberdeen were guilty of being too deliberate in their passing, failing to move the ball quickly enough and allowing opposing teams to stay narrow at the base of their midfield. Pawlett couldn’t find the room to utilise his acceleration and dribbling ability and Aberdeen won only two of their last ten games. If they go with a similar approach they’ll find another wall in the form of defensive midfielders Rasmus Lindgren and Maikel Kieftenbeld. The two work excellently together but they are greater than the sum of their parts. Get McGinn/Pawlett going at one of them and Aberdeen can get some joy. To do so they’ll need to move the ball out wide, hopefully drawing one of the pair out of position, before shifting it quickly back inside. The frenzied atmosphere inside Pittodrie may even help to raise the tempo.
Use the counter attack
The addition of Adam Rooney in January made Aberdeen a terrifying prospect for any team chasing a game against the Dons. In Rooney, McGinn, Hayes and Pawlett they have the quickest attacking quartet in Scottish football; four players capable of eating up the space left in behind by a team pushing forward. Of course, this also translates well when coming up against favoured opposition.
The consecutive wins against Celtic and performances in the away trips to Tannadice showed that Aberdeen were very much comfortable in the underdog role. When they needed to break teams down they found it hard to do so. Pace cannot be utilised as much in a football match if it’s constrained into a small area. When they were able to use that pace, however, they looked so good that they encouraged members of the media to fancifully discuss the possibility of a 2014/15 threat to Celtic’s throne.
The first leg may not be the perfect setting to utilise such an approach, but the home support shouldn’t feel too restless if the hosts fail to score as long as they stop Groningen from doing so. The way this team is built they’ll have a terrific chance of qualifying for the next round if they can hold some advantage going back to the Netherlands. Even 0-0 wouldn’t be a disaster as the emphasis will still be on the favoured Dutch side to go win the match at home.
Pray than Rooney outplays Hoesen
Like most close matches in football, this one will likely come down to the play of the two central strikers. Danny Hoesen has terrific ability and has long been thought of as a promising attacker in European football. For one reason or another, however, that potential has yet to be fulfilled. Groningen manager Erwin van de Looi has a good reputation for developing talent so it could be a case that Hoesen has finally found the right environment for him to blossom. Whether the coach has had enough time thus far for his message to impact the player remains to be seen.
Rooney really didn’t seem to fit Aberdeen the longer last season went on. In matches where the Reds controlled possession he had surprisingly few touches of the ball, his strength lying in stretching defences rather than playing the link-up role with his back to the goal. With Groningen likely to attack more than various visitors to Pittodrie in the latter stages of the 2013/14 season, Rooney should take this opportunity to prove his abilities.
He’ll be going up against Eric Fernando Botteghin, a towering Brazilian centre half who displays terrific anticipation and man marking abilities. What he does lack is pace and if Rooney can alter his runs to try and take advantage of this deficiency then he can continue his goalscoring exploits from the previous round and haul Aberdeen into the next one.
Thanks to Michiel Jongsma, Dutch editor of BeNeFoot.Net, for the information on FC Groningen