IT CERTAINLY didn’t feel like it at the time, but the controversial last-day defeat against Motherwell actually led to the best possible preparation for Aberdeen’s Europa League qualifying campaign.
Losing second place to the Fir Park side meant returning to training before the World Cup quarter-finals had been played, but who’s laughing now?
Definitely, not Motherwell, who suffered an embarrassing exit at the hands of Icelandic opposition last Thursday, nor FC Groningen, who were eliminated by the Dons the same night. The Dutch side made the fundamental mistake of not doing their homework, failing to realise a goalless first leg at Pittodrie was actually a bad result against a team who are better away.
Another factor was the relative fitness of the teams, as Aberdeen were in much better condition after banging in the goals in a range of friendlies and a first round hammering of FK Daugava Riga.
Their reward is a trip to Spain for the first leg of the third qualifying round and La Liga opponents Real Sociedad are actually the worried ones before the first leg in the Anoeta stadium. By coincidence the team from the Basque region were in Holland for a training camp this week so their coach, Jagoba Arrasate, travelled from their base in Ermelo to watch Aberdeen’s 2-1 win.
He made it clear he would much rather have faced the Dutch as the Scots were fitter, sharper and more dangerous opponents at this stage.
Sociedad’s game against NEC Nijmegen yesterday, scrutinised by Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes, was the first time Arrasate’s players had been asked to play a full game this preseason.
Wholesale changes were made at half time in the 3-1 defeat against Ajax last weekend and again after 70 minutes in the midweek draw against Feyenoord, leaving a question mark against the Spaniards’ physical readiness for Thursday.
There are also questions over the line-up. Chile’s oustanding World Cup goalkeeper Claudio Bravo has already moved to Barcelona for £12 million and is certain to be followed out of the door by Antoine Griezmann, pictured, who so impressed as replacement for the injured Franck Ribery in France’s World Cup campaign that Spurs have had a £15m bid rejected.
Monaco, Arsenal and Chelsea have also been credited with an interest in the player but new Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino may up his offer to the £25m mark that automatically triggers a sale. That, and the fact Griezmann only returns to training this week, mean he is unlikely to face Aberdeen, as is star striker Carlos Vela. He has signed a four-year deal to stay with the San Sebastian club after scoring 21 goals last season and being credited with more assists than Lionel Messi in a side that finished seventh in La Liga, but he has yet to return to full training because of a heel injury.
Aberdeen will have to face Sociedad’s main summer signing, Icelander Alfred Finnbogason, who scored 53 goals in 62 games for Heerenveen.
McInnes’ only selection worry is who to leave out. The strength in depth and versatility of his squad were clearly indicated in midweek when former Celtic and Scotland midfielder Barry Robson started the second-leg win against Groningen on the bench.
The Aberdeen manager’s options for this week’s trip to Spain have increased as winger Jeffery Monakana is available for a debut after joining on a six-month loan from Brighton last Monday.
McInnes is likely to stick with the side that started in Holland, with striker Adam Rooney supported by the speed on the break of Peter Pawlett, Johnny Hayes and Niall McGinn. The winner in Groningen was McGinn’s second in the qualifiers, and the Northern Ireland international sees no reason why the club can’t return with the best result against Spainish oppostion since Real Madrid were defeated in the 1983 European Cup Winners Cup Final.
McGinn said: “Stranger things have happened in football than Aberdeen winning a tie like this.
“It’s clearly going to be difficult to get into their backyard and get a positive result. All we can do is go to Spain, give it our all and see where it takes us. It’s a massive game and why I came to Aberdeen in the first place. Europe in particular has already been special. We have proved that we are not just in it to make up the numbers.
“I have got the taste for scoring in Europe now and after getting one in Riga in the last round, scoring again in Holland was brilliant. It helped us get another positive result which is the main thing. The Dons fans will be out there in numbers as they were in Holland and we are determined to do well for them again.”