The script in the build-up to this weekend was that Old Firm tribalism would provide the more captivating spectacle, while this semi-final, with the rivalry and the fans making mere cameo appearances, would serve up the better football.
Scorers: Dundee United - Morris 60; Ciftci 84; Aberdeen - Daniels 48
It was a heavy burden of expectation, given the penchant for the last four encounters to be nervy and taking into consideration the prize at stake. One team were intent on retaining the silverware that ended their lengthy trophy drought last season and maintain the momentum that has been building since. The other were seeking redemption following their Scottish Cup final disappointment, and were keen to underline their ongoing improvement.
Yet, there was also the demand for entertaining, flair-laden football and, on a pitch which was cutting up badly, it was perhaps too much to ask. In the end, they divvied up three poor goals as Dundee United emerged on top. But if it took the sides too long to settle into this encounter for it ever to be described as a classic, it was still compelling.
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It was Dundee United who explored the early opportunities to break forward, but while the invention was there, the execution was lacking, as Aberdeen kept a high line, catching Gary Mackay-Steven offside, a tactic they employed to good effect throughout the first half.
With debutant Donervorn Daniels helping shore up the defence, getting a vital block on Stuart Armstrong’s 24th-minute effort, Derek McInnes’ men absorbed the tentative forays forward, preventing the Tannadice side from settling into an easy rhythm and eventually blooming into a more attacking force.
A major part of that was the input of both Mackay-Steven and Armstrong, the former already Parkhead bound having signed a pre-contract and the other linked with a switch to Celtic Park before this window closes. But this result may see both postponing their departure, desperate to help the club to silverware.
But at the other end Peter Pawlett and David Goodwillie forced last-gasp interventions from Callum Morris and then Sean Dillon, and as the first half ebbed away the sides were still locked in stalemate.
The New Firm rivalry is growing in importance as they find themselves tussling at the top end of the league table and engineering their way into the latter stages of knock-out competition with greater regularity, and there was little between them. That battle for supremacy was underlined by the massive support – as big as any they have amassed for this head-to-head in the past 60 years.
Perfectly poised, as they emerged for the second half, it was United who seemed the more eager to get on with things.
It was Aberdeen who broke the deadlock, though, when new boy Daniels rose to back-head a long Andrew Considine throw-in and send it looping over Radoslaw Cierzniak and into the net. That was in the 48th minute and it rattled United, who had to withstand a torrid period, as Jaroslaw Fojut cleared a Goodwillie effort off the line. Pawlett then forced a save from Cierzniak as Aberdeen pressed.
Weathering the storm, United got the opportunity to exhale in the 59th minute when Callum Morris showed the determination needed to burst into the area and head home a Mackay-Steven corner. It was the leveller, and sparked a fightback.
Morris then blocked from Daniels, an Adam Rooney “goal” was disallowed when Calum Butcher was nudged in the build-up, and the United keeper then had to push a Ryan Jack shot over the bar. Ryan Dow pounced on a short headed back-pass from Mark Reynolds but Reynolds recovered to get back and clear off the line.
With drama aplenty there was every chance the match could have gone into extra time but with seven minutes remaining it was Nadir Ciftci who grabbed the winner. According to United club officials it is the last contribution he will make, with his booking for a foul against Hayes apparently ruling him out of the final. But it was a vital, if controversial, moment. Looking slightly offside, he got a glancing header on a deep cross but with poor marking and Dons keeper Scott Brown allowing what should have been a comfortable take to bound past hi m, it was the telling moment as Aberdeen, beaten by a St Johnstone comeback in last May’s Scottish Cup semi, once again failed to build on an early lead.
Dundee United: Cierzniak, McGowan, Morris, Fojut, Dillon, Butcher, Paton, Telfer (Dow 57), Mackay-Steven, Armstrong, Ciftci (Anier 89). Subs not used: Szromnik, Townsend, Rankin, Erskine, Connolly.
Aberdeen: Brown, Logan, Daniels, Reynolds,Considine, Jack, Hayes, McGinn, Pawlett (Smith 85), Goodwillie, Rooney. Subs not used: Langfield, Flood, Robson, Robertson, Masson, Wright.
Referee: Steven McLean. Attendance: 29,608