Aberdeen’s progress beyond the first qualifying round of the Europa League is a much more daunting task than last season and no-one is more acutely aware of that than striker Adam Rooney.
This time last year Rooney helped himself to five goals in the 8-0 aggregate thrashing of Daugava Riga, whose obscurity has only increased since the Latvian club no longer exists.
Similarly it’s unlikely many, if any, connected with Aberdeen had heard of KF Shkendija before being paired with them at the same stage this season.
That’s where the comparisons end though, following a hard-fought 1-1 draw in Macedonia last Thursday, leaving Rooney and his team-mates with work to do in tonight’s return leg at Pittodrie.
The prize is a trip to Croatia next week to face HNK Rijeka, a side who have beaten Stuttgart and Feyenoord and drawn with Seville while reaching the group stage in the last two seasons.
It’s the sort of tough draw that increases the difficulties the Dons face in their desire to improve on last season’s defeat by Real Sociedad in the third round of qualifying.
However, Rooney has warned the 15,000 plus supporters expected at Pittodrie tonight that, like the players, they should not take Aberdeen’s progression for granted.
He said: “The Riga game turned out to be an easy tie for us last year. We won 8-0 on aggregate so maybe some people expected a similar outcome at this stage again this time.
“However they are a different side. They have a lot of international players who play at a decent level. Anyone at the game last week would have seen how technical they are and how well they work the ball, so we have to be on our game.
“They caused us a few problems so we will be well aware of them. Hopefully with the away goal and the crowd behind us we can take care of them.
“We want to go as far as we can. That’s the aim in every competition whether it’s Europe, the cups or the league. Sometimes it is down to the luck of the draw. Last year we got a tough one in Groningen and then got Real Sociedad, who are a top side.
“All we can do is make sure we focus on getting through this round first of all and then go from there.”
It was Niall McGinn who scored Aberdeen’s goal last week, a few minutes after Rooney had given way to David Goodwillie in the second half of the tie. Rooney is certain to start tonight, though, and is anxious to get the same confidence-boosting start to the season that he enjoyed 12 months ago.
Those five goals in the opening Europa League qualifier were the first of 28 for the campaign, making Rooney Scotland’s top scorer, and he is keen to get at least one tonight.
“It’s obviously nice to score early on, whether it’s in pre-season matches or competitive games,” said the Irishman.
“It gives you confidence to go forward so hopefully I can get up and running quickly again. It was a good season for me last year. There was no complaints and it would be nice to go out and do it again this time round. For me, and for everyone, the aim is to always improve and that’s the target this year.”
Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes will be forced to make at least one change to his starting line-up from the first leg as Mark Reynolds faces three months on the sidelines with a dislocated shoulder. The central defender did the damage in last week’s first leg in Skopje and will have an operation on Friday to pin it back in place.
“He has a real bad dislocation of his shoulder,” said McInnes. “He has to get it operated and pinned so Mark will go for an operation on his shoulder on Friday.
“We envisage that he will be out to some time in October. He could get back quicker, but any professional footballer is going to have to stand up to some robust challenges going forward and that is why he needs to get the operation done.”
On the plus side McInnes has experienced cover in Paul Quinn, who was signed from Ross County earlier in the summer, and also has a option of playing Andrew Considine in the position with Graeme Shinnie moving to left-back.