ABERDEEN’S Kenny McLean knows what his team would like to see in the San Siro on Thursday night. “I think we’ll take extra time and penalties,” he smiled. The 3-3 scoreline required for that is fanciful. What is not fanciful is that any sinew-straining exertions for Celtic in their Europa League tie, in addition to their travelling late on Thursday, could have an impact on the crucial meeting between the clubs on Sunday. A fascinating fixture that is not a title decider but will go a long way to deciding how much further Derek McInnes’s side can push the Scottish champions.
On the evidence of their vibrant, dynamic and consummately professional dismantling of a defeatist St Mirren at the weekend, Aberdeen can continue to push Celtic beyond their trip to Glasgow in six days.
Of course, Ronny Deila’s team might have demonstrated they can cope with the rigours inherent in juggling domestic and European football, courtesy of their convincing 4-0 win at home to Hamilton Accies yesterday – a victory that restored their three-point advantage at the top of the Premiership table, with a game in hand over their nearest rivals.
Yet, just as Celtic must step up a level when going into Europe, so they will find a step up in quality from what they have encountered in league business this season when Aberdeen come calling at the weekend. McInnes rightly talked afterwards of how his team are now “getting stronger” with the passing weeks. In doing so he could point to them having racked up ten goals without conceding in posting three straight wins that have extended their unbeaten league run to 13 games – 11 of these clean sheets wins.
Even their vanquished Paisley opponents – through manager Gary Teale and John McGinn – could only offer up admiration for a ”really good side”. McGinn pointed to their “movement” and the “calibre” of a bench that included David Goodwillie and Barry Robson, on a day Aberdeen showed no signs of missing injured Jonny Hayes and Ash Taylor. In part, the recent arrival of McLean from St Mirren has helped. The midfielder considered his third game for his new club his best. And, considering the opposition, also his weirdest.
“Knowing a lot of the boys and just leaving them a few weeks ago was a bit strange,” said the 23-year-old, five years with his first club. “As soon as the game started there was only one thing on my mind, though – getting the three points. There was a bit of banter beforehand but, as soon as the whistle went, my mind was just on the game. We got down to business early and we played really well.”
Aberdeen were relentless and ruthless. The former was provided by the driving, darting figures of Peter Pawlett, Niall McGinn, Ryan Jack, Shay Logan and McLean, the latter offered up by Adam Rooney. The Irishman took his tally for the season to a stunning 23 goals with two opportunistic strikes.
Midway through the first period, he pounced with a header and, little more than a minute after the restart, converted with a shot on the turn from close range. McGinn provided the ball in for that second goal, then delivered the corner nodded in by Mark Reynolds for the 66th-minute third goal.
McLean appreciates just what a slick footballing operation he has joined, and that is why Sunday’s acid test holds no fears for him or his team-mates. He also knows just what a grip it has commanded in the minds of the club faithful.
“It’s a massive game,” he said. “Since I have come to the club, everyone has been talking about it. None of the games going into this were going to be easy but we have handled ourselves very professionally. Now Celtic is the next game and now we will start preparing. Our confidence is up.
“We are scoing goals and defending well. Can we beat them? I don’t see why not. We have the quality to beat anyone and there is a real winning mentality.”
The contrast with his former employers could not be more acute. McLean had helped St Mirren find reasons for optimism with his form across the turn of the year. Now they are once more staring into the abyss after Ross County’s recent rally has pushed the Paisley club into the relegation play-off place, albeit the Dingwall club, Motherwell and Teale’s men are separated only by goal difference. “It’s just the confidence you can see in the side,” the Scotland under-21 international said of the transformation in footbaling mindset prompted by his move. “Just look at the last few games with that ten goals in three. At St Mirren, we were always going behind in games and it was an uphill battle at times. Aberdeen play good, expansive football, we create chances and score goals. It’s great to be a part of it.
“I still know a lot of the boys at St Mirren and I hope they can get out of it.”
McLean exhibited real grace when asked to give his thoughts on his manager saying he was “disappointed” the midfielder hadn’t gone to England, where only third and fouth tier clubs seemed to show an interest in signing him.
“Everyone has opinions,” he said of Teale’s comment. “But as soon I heard Aberdeen were interested, I came up and got it done right way. I was very happy to come here. You look at the way Aberdeen play and the fact they are always challenging for cups and challenging for Europe.
“That’s his opinion if he thinks it is the wrong move. I’m just going to keep working hard and see where that takes me.”
With the abilities of the Aberdeen team assembled by McInnes, McLean’s move north could yet take him mighty far.
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