IT MIGHT not have felt like it outside at the Dundee United training base in St Andrews yesterday, but things are heating up before this weekend’s League Cup semi-finals.
While one game threatens to hog the attention, there is the little matter of Dundee United v Aberdeen to come first, which is why Jackie McNamara’s side were already hard at work on a brisk Monday morning. Included in the pack as they lapped the pitch prior to training was Henri Anier, the recent signing who is still desperately trying to reach peak fitness levels ahead of the Hampden Park date.
A starting place, his first for United, helped to that end on Saturday. Anier was given 57 minutes in the 3-1 win over former club Motherwell. “I was not happy [with my performance], but I will keep working,” was his assessment – and he is hoping McNamara sees evidence of further progress this week to hand him the start he craves.
It is more likely he will see action from the bench, although even the mere sight of Anier could cause upset among the Aberdeen ranks. The 24 year-old striker was a member of the Motherwell team who leapfrogged Aberdeen into second place in the final minute of the final game of the 2013-14 season. He smiles at the memory, one of the best, he estimates, in a career that has included a loan spell at Italian giants Sampdoria.
Anier came on as a second-half substitute and saw Craig Reid score the all-important goal that dismayed the majority inside Pittodrie that afternoon.
“It was not a great game,” he acknowledged. “But we got a result in the last second. There was great emotion after that game. I had not felt that kind of emotion in my life.
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“We went into the game with only one thought – if we win we can finish second in the table,” he added.
Dundee United will need to adopt the same attitude against Aberdeen this weekend. Winning is the only option if they wish to oust the holders and reach the cup final, where the winners of Rangers v Celtic will be waiting. On the subject of Aberdeen being considered favourites by many, he exclaimed: “Surely not! We want to get to the final and win this cup. That’s what the mentality should be.”
He reports that he is getting fitter all the time following a frustrating period at German second tier club Erzgebirge Aue, his last club. He fell out of favour there after the manager who signed him was sacked. “I have felt good in training and it was good to get 30 minutes v St Mirren [last midweek] and now I have started a game,” he said. “Obviously it was not easy, since it’s been a few months from my last proper game. I also had a break at Christmas time.”
He has found a warm welcome at Dundee United, where he has been impressed by the quality of play. Not that this has surprised him, he explained.
“They are a very positive group of lads. The way they play is very – how do you say in English – very fluent and open-minded. We can move around up front and it suits me. All the guys in the team enjoy it. It starts from the goalkeeper. By training we are getting to know each other more and more.
“When I was at Motherwell I knew their [United’s] style of play,” he added. “When I spoke to Jackie before I signed I knew exactly what I was looking for. I enjoy his style of play and I think we can do well like this.”
Whether he gets the chance to contribute this weekend is of course up to McNamara, who also welcomed Ryan McGowan to training yesterday following the former Hearts defender’s arrival at the club last week. Both he and Anier, who joined earlier this month, are eligible for Saturday’s tie.
“Everyone wants to play in the game,” said Anier. “Whoever goes out there will give 100 per cent. I won the cup back home in Estonia, that was a few years ago. With Motherwell we did not do so well. In Germany I played a couple of rounds. But these are the early stages of my career!”
The success in Estonia, he recalls, was “four or five years ago” with FC Flora of Tallinn and helped win him earn a move to Italy. He added: “We won the league the same year. I was a small boy and got into the first team and I was very happy to win the cup and the league and I got a move to Italy from there. We won it in the national stadium but it was the stadium where we played.”
It wasn’t quite Hampden Park, he agreed. Nor was it a match containing the intrigue of something still termed, for better or worse, a New Firm derby. Anier knows there is no time like Saturday to break his duck for his new club.