Two ill-advised slide challenges, two controversial decisions and two points dropped for each of the top two in the Ladbrokes Premiership. It’s as you were in the top-tier title race, if we can still call it that, as Aberdeen are fast running out of lives in their hopes of taking their fight with Celtic down to the wire.
It seems every time Derek McInnes’ side are in position to put serious pressure on the league leaders they cannot rise to the challenge. While they, perhaps rightfully, will point to a poor refereeing decision on this occasion, they still had this game in the palm of their hands and yet failed to see it out.
Similar to Dedryck Boyata’s challenge on Friday night, which earned the defender a red card in Celtic’s draw with Hamilton, Ryan Jack looked to perhaps get a toe on the ball when he slid in against Liam Craig going down the left side of the Aberdeen penalty area. However, just like Celtic’s much maligned defender, Jack should have remained on his feet and ushered his opponent to the by-line. He gave the referee a decision to make and Steven McLean duly pointed to the spot.
“When your defenders go to ground there’s always a risk, but Ryan’s trying to stop Craig getting in the cross, and he thinks he can block it. Ryan is adamant he got the ball,” said McInnes. “Having seen it again I can’t be sure, but the referee was in a better position and he made the decision.”
In an attempt to offset the loss of Adam Rooney, out for six weeks with a hamstring injury, McInnes threw a curveball at the opposing defence with striker Simon Church starting on the left and Kenny McLean through the centre. It almost had an immediate effect when, in the first minute, a blocked clearance allowed Church space on the left to cut-back for McLean. The midfielder was well placed but his attempt too weak to seriously trouble Alan Mannus. While they may have been fortunate to survive that initial attack, St Johnstone grew into the match considerably thereafter and felt quite unlucky to be behind at half-time. After going with a 4-5-1 variation in recent weeks, Tommy Wright reverted back to a 4-4-2 with Steven MacLean and Graeme Cummins in attack. The pair combined to set-up MacLean in the 13th minute with Scott Brown having to be at full stretch to repel the striker’s attempted lob after running on to a Cummins header.
It was the Irishman’s turn next when Darnell Fisher found him with a cross from the right. Cummins did well to drift into space between Aberdeen’s centre backs, though his header was a disappointing effort that sailed well over the bar.
Two minutes after that opportunity, a flick on from MacLean found space for Danny Swanson. The midfielder coolly lobbed the ball back over the head of the closing Jack, but got his shot all wrong, sending it spinning high and wide.
Aberdeen had enjoyed decent spells of possession but hadn’t been able to create much in between those opportunities for the visitors. Perhaps as a result, their front four reverted to a more orthodox look, with Church taking up residence in the centre and McLean supporting from midfield.
The switch played a part in the build-up to Aberdeen’s opener. A centrally positioned Church flicked on Niall McGinn’s cross and Simon Lappin was forced to turn it behind before Graeme Shinnie pounced. From the resulting corner, Ash Taylor headed McGinn’s cross towards goal. Mannus made a great initial save but couldn’t get any distance on his push and Church gratefully slammed home from close range.
Given their first half showing, St Johnstone were rightly disappointing with their failure to trouble Aberdeen’s goal after the restart. Instead it was the hosts who always looked likelier to add to the scoreline. Church had a close range shot on the turn blocked by Mannus. Then, after Jack had skied over from the edge of the area, Church was again denied by the St Johnstone stopper. The Welsh international striker did well to get ahead of his man and turn Peter Pawlett’s cross towards goal, though his effort was too close to Mannus and the keeper parried it away.
The match seemed to be heading to an inevitable conclusion before Craig charged into the area, drawing the foul from Jack. After referee McLean dealt with the complaints of the Aberdeen players, Craig took the penalty himself, keeping his cool to send Brown the wrong way.