CALVIN Zola’s second-half goal was enough to consolidate Aberdeen’s place in the top four, although the overall performance on Saturday was not sufficient to convince anyone that last season’s problems have been completely overcome just yet.
The general consensus is that Derek McInnes has assembled a squad capable of finishing second in the division for the first time since Willie Miller was in charge at Pittodrie two decades ago.
It is not the sort of talk the current manager encourages and performances like this one illustrate why he is desperately trying to keep expectation levels under control.
Overall the signs are positive, as the necessity of reopening the top tier of the Richard Donald Stand to accommodate more supporters at the weekend clearly shows.
Their optimism is certainly not statistically driven though, as Aberdeen are not significantly better off than the same stage last season.
They have two points more than a year ago, having lost more matches overall while scoring one goal fewer in their opening five home league fixtures than they did under Craig Brown.
What has changed is that they have made better use of that meagre tally, even if all the difficulties in creating and taking chances haven’t been entirely eradicated. For example last season’s top marksman, Niall McGinn, has yet to score from open play this term while Zola, Scott Vernon and the currently injured Josh Magennis have all failed to make a dramatic impact so far.
Barry Robson’s return from injury might be the catalyst to cure that though as the poise and precision of his link-up play in the opening day win against Kilmarnock has been sorely missed since.
He was given a brief run out as substitute against one of his former clubs and another ex-Dundee United midfielder, Willo Flood, produced the graft, grit and determination that typified Aberdeen’s overall performance.
The visitors’ movement and sharper passing produced the more impressive football, especially in the first half, but with Flood back in the engine room and captain Russell Anderson returning at the back, they rarely had a clear look at goal either.
In the end there was really just one clear-cut opportunity for each side during a frantic 90 minutes and as Aberdeen manager McInnes said: “The difference was that we took our glaring chance and they didn’t take theirs.”
That winner came in 54 minutes when Zola, who battered and bruised Sean Dillon and Gavin Gunning without much joy in the air, scored with just about the only decent ball played to his feet all day.
Inevitably it involved Flood, who played on despite a painful ankle injury sustained in the first half, before Peter Pawlett released McGinn to speed clear down the left flank.
The former Celtic winger got more joy on that side than he had against the impressive Andrew Robertson before the break, climaxing in a wickedly curling cross into the six-yard box.
Dillon still should have done better than let the ball travel to the back post where Zola slid it into the net to leave his manager delighted his interval team talk had obviously sunk in.
McInnes said: “We asked the players to look after the ball a bit better in the second half by playing in the right areas of the pitch.
“I thought we started the second half excellently, got a real grip of the game culminating in the real bit of quality the game was screaming out for.
“We cut their defence open and got our reward with what was an important win at the end of a really hard-fought match between teams that largely cancelled each other out.”
In fact they would have completely cancelled each other out had David Goodwillie shown the sort of composure that earned him an ill-fated move to Blackburn Rovers in the first place.
His problems on and off the park have been well documented and it is to be hoped his current loan spell back at Tannadice provides the rehabilitation he must crave.
There have been glimpses of the past in the League Cup hat-trick against Partick Thistle, but it is just one league goal so far and that tally should have been doubled on Saturday.
In 73 minutes, Nadir Ciftci showed touch and technique to glide past two opponents and send substitute Gary Mackay-Steven scurrying down the right.
Aberdeen were ripped apart for the only time in the game as Goodwillie was played in with the perfect pass but the striker was indecisive with a shot Jamie Langfield was able to block.
Ciftci could not believe what he saw, but the Dutch-born striker of Turkish extraction was honest enough to acknowledge his own culpability for the result.
Dundee United have now failed to score in half of their league games this season, so it is not just Aberdeen who are a work in progress at the moment as Ciftci admits. He said: “Anyone who was in his (Goodwillie’s) position you would expect to score, but these things happen in football and he is not the only one feeling down after this.
“I was disappointed not to hit the target with my free kicks as I train hard on taking them and sometimes it goes in the top corner, but not today.
“I think we deserved something from the match, but if we want to be in the top four by the end of the season then you have to win these type of games.”