ABERDEEN can look forward to a last-16 Scottish Cup tie at Hibernian in the New Year after deservedly getting the better of Motherwell in this fourth-round replay.
Motherwell - Higdon (pen 90)
Aberdeen - Fallon (51), Shaughnessy (61)
If the first half was even and undistinguished, the bulk of the second half was dominated by the visitors, who were shaken out of their comfort zone only by a stoppage-time penalty from Michael Higdon.
By the time that goal went in, however, Craig Brown’s team were already two goals to the good. It could, and probably should, have been one or two more.
On a bitterly cold night in which the temperature dropped to minus 7, both teams began play in a thoughtful, sedate style more suited to the height of summer. The fact that swathes of the pitch looked lightly frosted was at least a partial explanation for the slow pace, but the tentative nature of the match was a worry, nonetheless, for those spectators – in such conditions surely the vast majority – who hoped for a decisive outcome after 90 minutes.
Aberdeen began the game more assertively than their opponents, and created the first scoring chance from a second-minute corner taken by Jonny Hayes. Clark Robertson connected cleanly, but could do no better than direct the ball into the arms of Darren Randolph, back in the home goal after serving a two-match suspension for a challenge on Hearts’ Callum Paterson.
While Stuart McCall welcomed back the goalkeeper, he had to do without Nicky Law because of an ankle injury, the midfielder’s place going to Stuart Carswell. The home team were otherwise unchanged from the one which had beaten Ross County 3-2 at the weekend.
With Ryan Fraser and Ryan Jack heading a lengthy injury list, Brown had more selection problems than McCall. He was able to bring Clark Robertson back in place of Russell Anderson, but Stephen Hughes did not make it. Rory Fallon, a second-half substitute in Saturday’s 2-0 defeat at Tynecastle, continued in place of Cameron Smith.
After initially looking vulnerable, Motherwell steadily imposed a stranglehold on midfield, while, further back, Shaun Hutchinson was a commanding presence. Michael Higdon was a handful up front as well, and, with quarter of an hour played, the big striker latched on to a cross from Chris Humphrey, but headed over the bar.
The best move of the first half, however, came at the other end five minutes before the break, when Hayes put Robertson in the clear on the left of the penalty box. He crossed perfectly for Fallon, and the New Zealander got in a strong header only to see Randolph well placed to block.
The first few minutes of the second half did not offer much hope to anyone in search of more action, but that changed after six minutes when Fallon fired his team ahead. A cross into the right of the box was knocked back by Joe Shaughnessy, and Fallon did not need a second invitation to shoot home from 15 yards out.
The goal produced an immediate increase in tempo as Motherwell went in search of an instant riposte. They might well have got one, too, but for an excellent tackle in the six-yard box by Mark Reynolds on Higdon.
With half an hour in which to get an equaliser, Motherwell should have been more patient, as some mad dashes upfield left far too much space open to counter attacks. Niall McGinn in particular was profiting from that space, and, at the end of one break, he should have done better than blast the ball wide.
Aberdeen were playing with a fair degree of confidence by this time, however, and their second goal was only delayed. An exchange of passes between Hayes and Fallon put the latter through on goal, and he clipped the ball home from a few yards out.
Having doubled their advantage, Aberdeen sensibly reverted to a less adventurous style of play, thwarting Motherwell by getting eight or nine men behind the ball. With 20 minutes to save the tie, McCall responded by making a double substitution. Left-winger Zaine Francis-Angol replaced centre-half Adam Cummins, and Bob McHugh came on up front for Henrik Ojamaa.
The double switch helped the home team apply more pressure, but Aberdeen still looked the likelier to score. McGinn, a constant threat, could have put the issue beyond all doubt with quarter of an hour to play, but shot wide when he should at least have got his shot on target.
Even so, Brown’s team played out the game in a confident and thoroughly competent fashion. Having been minutes away from getting knocked out of the competition in the original game, they were more than worthy winners of this rematch.
Fraser Kerr came on for the final few minutes, taking the place of Tom Hateley, but it was no more than a token gesture by McCall. The same description has to go to the last-minute penalty, scored by Higdon after Robertson handled.
Motherwell have excelled in away games at times this season – their 5-1 win at Inverness being the prime example – but they continue to be almost toothless at home. Having been denied a visit to Easter Road in the next round of the cup, they will at least be there on Saturday in the SPL, and will be out to avenge a 4-0 defeat at Fir Park earlier in the season.
Motherwell: Randolph, Hateley (Kerr 84), Hutchinson, Cummins (Francis-Angol 70), Hammell, Humphrey, Lasley, Carswell, Murphy, Ojamaa (McHugh 70), Higdon. Subs not used: Hollis, Ramsden.
Aberdeen: Langfield, Robertson, Rae, Considine, Hayes, Mageniis, Reynolds, Shaughnessy, McGinn, Fallon, Vernon. Subs not used: Brown, Megginson, Masson, McManus, Smith.