Aberdeen 2 - 1 Apollon Limassol: Graeme Shinnie puts Dons in charge

Aberdeen midfielder Ryan Christie rises to steer a header into the Apollon Limassol net. Picture: SNS.
Aberdeen midfielder Ryan Christie rises to steer a header into the Apollon Limassol net. Picture: SNS.
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Local boy Graeme Shinnie emerged the hero on a heated, fiery night. Fortress Pittodrie proved exactly that as Aberdeen responded to the urgings of a passionate home crowd against ten men to secure something to cling on to next week.

This first-leg tie was mirroring how things developed for Aberdeen at the same stage in the last round until Shinnie’s explosive intervention. There was a pulsating start in which the hosts opened the scoring even earlier this time through Ryan Christie, already emerging as a leading candidate for their player of the year.

But as against Siroki Brijeg, the momentum was transferred to the visitors, who equalised through Jander just before the hour mark and shortly before losing their composure. Head coach Sofronis Avgousti was sent off for some over the top celebrations involving him invading the pitch.

Midfielder Estaban Sanchetti was red carded on 69 minutes after he followed up a booking for an agricultural challenge on Greg Stewart with an equally crude elbow on Christie.

Aberdeen took full advantage. Those sitting behind Shinnie in the old main stand watched with confidence as the ball arrowed into Bruno Vale’s top corner. It was a goal from the moment the ball left the skipper’s left foot.

The home side saw out the remaining dozen minutes to ensure they have something to defend next week in Cyprus. Indeed, they may well lament failing to increase their lead.

Nearly all of those at Pittodrie wanted to see Aberdeen avoid making unwelcome history by becoming the first Scottish side to lose a competitive game to Cypriot opposition. But as manager Derek McInnes was at pains to stress on the eve of the match, Apollon are in no way related to the moderate teams from the island we might remember from the past.

Aberdeen had clearly identified Brazilian playmaker Alex as a main threat. Shinnie felled him with a strong challenge almost immediately after kick-off to concede a free-kick and earn a yellow card. Alex was clearly suffering and did not emerge again after the break.

It was a challenge that might well have been permitted in the Scottish game but Finnish referee Mattias Gestranius was quick to issue a reprimand in the form of a card.

His resolve seemed to weaken later when only booking Sachetti for an over-the-ball challenge on Stewart. The referee took his time considering his options but brought out just a yellow card rather then the red card willed by more than 18,000 Aberdeen supporters. It would come eventually.

The game might well have been over had Apollon been reduced to ten men after 20 minutes. They were already chasing the match after Aberdeen’s early lead had sent Pittodrie into ferment.

The blow of losing Adam Rooney to a hamstring injury would be felt later in a game in which replacement striker Nicky Maynard struggled to make an impact. But Aberdeen didn’t stop to lament the absence of last season’s top goalscorer in the early stages. And they had no need to when blessed with Christie, who continued his purposeful start to the season.

After being the architect of both Aberdeen’s goals last week against Siroki and scoring against them a fortnight ago at Pittodrie he once more emerged as the crucial figure with his positive running.

Like last Thursday night in the heat of Bosnia, Gary Mackay-Steven was a willing accomplice. The winger accepted the ball from Christie and spotted his teammate’s run towards the near post, responding with an inch-perfect cross. Christie just had to help the ball into the corner of the net with a cushioned header that Apollon goalkeeper Vale seemed to have decided was going wide. Whatever the reason, he didn’t move.

As against Siroki, Aberdeen were quick to impose themselves. But an early lead – in this case after just four minutes – means there was still much of the match left for the opposition to muster a response.

Siroki did so although it proved to no avail in terms of the tie. But as McInnes was keen to stress, Apollon are a couple of notches above their second qualifying round opponents. And they continued to press for an equaliser.

They should have scored shortly after Aberdeen’s opener after Santana’s cutback found Anton Maglica. But his effort from the edge of the six-yard box was blocked, possibly by one of his own players.

Santana pulled a shot just wide at the start of the second half. It was a reminder Apollon still had plenty of time to secure a potentially crucial away goal and Aberdeen failed to heed the warning.

With the seagulls swirling, Jander dived in at the back post to convert a tempting cross from the substitute Antonio Jackolis.

Kari Arnason was sent on at centre-back for his second debut after re-signing, Aberdeen switching to three at the back. Sachetti’s red card helped create space and Shinnie plunged a dagger into the hearts of the opposition from 20 yards with a searing drive. Whether it proves a fatal blow for the Cypriots, next week will tell.