ABERDEEN substitute Kenny McLean netted what could be a priceless away goal in Asia to give Derek McInnes’s men a great chance of going through against classy Kazakhstan outfit Kairat Almaty.
The Dons looked every inch the weary travellers on their near 4,000-miles journey to the edge of China when they conceded two quality goals to Kairat inside the opening 22 minutes.
They were exposed time and time again by the big-spending and ambitious home side.
But just when the Pittodrie side were looking down and out and worried about conceding another goal, which would have left them with a bigger task than the size of the mountains which overlook this city, former St Mirren midfielder McLean popped up with a crucial goal .
That completely transformed the tie and McInnes will now fancy his side’s chances of completing the job next week in Scotland.
McInnes opted for the same team that had won so convincingly in Croatia against Rijeka and that was hardly a surprise. And Aberdeen received a significant boost before kick-off when Kairat’s two main strikers, top scorer Gerard Gohou and Spanish hitman Sito Riera, both failed to make it after training injuries.
Aberdeen, backed by 72 hardy fans who had somehow made their way to Kazakhstan, started on the back foot which was to be expected and ex-Bayern Munich ace Anatoliy Tymoschuk wasn’t slow in showing his class with plenty of nice early touches in his usual holding midfield role.
However, it was the Dons who had the first real attempt on goal when David Goodwillie curled an effort at goal, which was saved by home goalkeeper Vladimir Plotnikov.
But the Dons were outdone by the Kazakhs’ first real attack of quality in the 13th minute. With some quick one-touch football at the edge of the box, Kairat sliced through the Dons defence and Dorde Despotovic’s clever lay-off found onrushing Russian midfielder Mikhail Bakaev who took a touch before bursting through and flashing a great finish past Danny Ward to give the home side the lead.
Aberdeen should have been level in the 20th minute. Niall McGinn released Shay Logan on the right and soon got it back. The Northern Irish international’s cross was begging to be headed in at the back post by Jonny Hayes, but he got underneath it and nodded over.
It became worse for the Dons two minutes later when Kairat doubled their advantage with a wonderstrike by their captain. There was a real sense of anticipation among the home fans when Bauyrzhan Islamkhan picked up the ball 40 yards from goal and drove forward unchallenged from the Aberdeen midfield. No wonder, as he pinged a wonderful dipping drive over Ward into the net. It was a stunning strike and the Dons found themselves two down without playing badly.
McGinn tried to haul Aberdeen back into the game with a free-kick from an acute angle which was clumsily clawed away by the unconvincing home ’keeper.
But Aberdeen’s back five looked deeply uncomfortable when Kairat attacked and Tymoschuk was being afforded far too much room to dictate matters.
Peter Pawlett saw a clearance deflect off him and drift wide as the Scots continued to get plenty of the ball without making it count. But every time the Kazakhs attacked Aberdeen looked vulnerable and it took a fine save by Ward with his legs to keep out an angled low drive by Brazilian Isael Da Silva. Then the same player was denied by a fine blocking tackle by Ash Taylor.
McInnes had seen enough by half-time and replaced Pawlett with last season’s top scorer Adam Rooney, giving an indication of how important an away goal would be for the Dons.
The home team were content to allow Aberdeen to knock the ball about and the Premiership runners-up had plenty of possession without going anywhere at the start of the second half.
But that played into the home side’s hands. Da Silva once again turned the Dons defence inside out with some brilliant technical skill which sent him free and his ferocious shot was superbly palmed away with a brilliant one-handed stop by Ward.
Aberdeen were being exposed time and time again on the counter-attack and Islamkhan missed a great chance to practically end the tie when he wriggled free on the right before pushing his shot wide with just Ward to beat.
Yet Aberdeen grabbed a lifeline out of absolutely nothing.
On a rare venture upfield, McGinn’s cutback was deflected perfectly into the path of fellow sub McLean and he rifled the ball in from close range. It was just his second goal for Aberdeen after opening his account in Croatia against Rijeka, and it could go a long way to repaying the £300,000 transfer fee which the club paid to St Mirren.
Ward then made another fine fingertip save from sub Junior Dos Santos and from the resulting corner, Stanislav Lunin’s volley bounced off up the ground and cracked the crossbar.
Kairat Almaty: Plotnikov; Gurman (Dos Santos 79), Gabriel, Markovic, Kuantayev; Lunin, Bakayev, Tymoschuk, Da Silva; Despotovic, Islamkhan (Konysbayev 67). Subs not used: Tkachuk, Rudosselskiy, Kukeyev, Darabayev, Kuat.
Aberdeen: Ward; Logan, Taylor, Quinn (Quinn 85), Considine, Hayes; Pawlett (Rooney 46), Jack, Shinnie, McGinn; Goodwillie (McLean 64). Subs not used: Brown, Smith, Robson, Wright, Storrie.