ABERDEEN survived a very real scare last night against HNK Rijeka at Pittodrie, after proving that defending a 3-0 first-leg advantage can still be troublesome.
Now they are faced with the challenging logistical problems of a near 10,000-mile round trip to Kazakhstan on the eve of the league season’s kick-off next week.
But they and their fans will welcome such a headache as they edge nearer a return to the Europa League group stage. Kairat Almaty stand in the way of a play-off round berth and will be a severe test.
This is not to say last night’s opponents were pushovers – a goal from Marin Tomasov 13 minutes into the second half was proof of their calibre and delivered a wake-up call to Aberdeen fans who had perhaps started to feel as if they were finally permitted to relax.
A wonder strike from substitute Zoran Kvrzic four minutes later was more than a wake-up call; it was the signal to begin panicking as Rijeka looked on course to complete one of the great European comebacks.
But Niall McGinn’s well-finished goal just another 60 seconds later dimmed Rijeka’s hopes, which were then almost completely extinguished by Jonny Hayes’ strike nine minutes later.
It was presumed Aberdeen had done most of the hard work in Croatia seven days earlier, when they scored three away goals to no reply. A healthy crowd rightly turned out to cheer on Aberdeen in the return leg even though they held such a commanding lead.
While confidence must have been high, these fans are conditioned to expect the unexpected after too many shock defeats to mention.
Trepidation had not been banished completely. However, the efficient way Aberdeen handled their first half looked to have swept away the last of these anxieties. But Rijeka made a hugely admirably bid to gain a foothold in the tie after half time by scoring twice in the space of four minutes.
Rijeka do not belong in the company of Queen of the South and, going back further, Bohemians, but Aberdeen failing to defend a 3-0 first-leg lead against the Croatians would have been hard to accept. Manager Derek McInnes’ insistence that the tie was still only at the half-way completed stage was made to seem wise indeed.
Even when Aberdeen looked to have drawn the sting from the tie completely with a professional first-half performance they were handed a reminder that it only takes a second or two to score a goal.
Aberdeen did most of the attacking in the opening spell when perhaps they might have been expected to be the ones on the back foot. Rijeka struggled to advance further than their own half.
David Goodwillie was handed the lone striker’s role once more and took a lot of punishment, particularly from Matej Mitovic and Miral Samardzic, who seemed to be taking it in turns to shunt him in the back. But the striker worked tirelessly until being replaced by Adam Rooney to a huge ovation with 16 minutes left.
While many expected Rijeka to take the game to the home team, it was the hosts who looked more likely to add to their first-leg haul of goals. Kenny McLean should have converted at the back post in the opening half after a wonderful cross from Hayes. The early goal Rijeka wanted didn’t come.
The Pittodrie DJ felt confident enough to play the Bob Marley song “Don’t Worry” at half time. The chatter among the fans during the interval was of a more relaxed kind, though a stunned silence fell upon the ground after the second of Rijeka’s two goals. Tomasov had scored the first after 58 minutes with a neat finish after he burst through the Aberdeen defence and while that stirred the home fans into life, Kvrzic’s 25-yard effort into the top corner of Danny Ward’s goal briefly floored them.
The reality was that Rijeka needed just one further goal to force extra time. And as Aberdeen kicked off again, it looked as though their opponents were now the ones with the bit between their teeth.
But McGinn will score few more precious goals than the one he struck last night from a tight angle after bursting into the box in the 63rd minute. His shot bashed in off a post, relieving Aberdeen’s agonies.
Hayes’ strike after superb work from Goodwillie, who intelligently led the line, felt like a benediction to the home fans, who could now start to figure out ways to cross Europe into Asia for next week’s assignment in Almaty, a city currently being besieged by floods.
At first there had been little to suggest Aberdeen would be in any danger of being overwhelmed last night. Even just after half time they seemed to emerge the more determined side. Ashton Taylor almost headed the opening goal from Hayes’ corner just a minute after the re-start.
But it was too much to expect they might have it all their own way. Rijeka knew they had to score three times at least in the second 45 minutes and so had to start trying their luck, even if from distance.
This is what Bezjack did shorty afterwards, shooting narrowly over. Then Tomasov took matters into his own hand, setting up a rousing second half of end-to-end cup football. But Aberdeen fans were happy to see it end without any serious damage sustained.
Aberdeen: Ward, Taylor, Quinn, Considine, Logan, Hayes, Jack, McGinn (Flood 83), Shinnie, McLean (Pawlett 73), Goodwillie (Rooney 75). Subs Not Used: Brown, Smith, Robson, Rose.
Rijeka: Sluga, Bradaric (Balaj 74), Samardzic, Mitrovic, Leovac, Tomasov, Radosevic, Ristovski, Roshi (Kvrzic 52), Moises, Bezjak. Subs Not Used: Vargic, Tomecak, Mocinic, Bertosa, Jugovic.