IF consistency and momentum are the key factors in any title challenge, then Aberdeen must this morning be considered as serious contenders for Celtic’s Scottish Premiership crown.
Scorers: Aberdeen - Rooney 36, 89 (pen)
A seventh consecutive victory and clean sheet – the kind of sequence not recorded since the heady days of Sir Alex Ferguson’s tenure in 1983 – lifted Derek McInnes’s side four points clear at the top of the table. They have played two matches more than Celtic, who face Kilmarnock at Rugby Park tonight before heading to Gran Canaria for a winter break, but they have announced themselves as a credible threat to the reigning champions.
Solid at the back and enterprising in attack, Aberdeen kept their bandwagon rolling at Fir Park courtesy of two Adam Rooney goals, taking the Irish striker’s tally for the season to an impressive 19.
Aberdeen may be keen to publicly play down all title talk, but on the pitch they currently give every impression of a team filled with growing belief in their capacity to sustain a tilt at Celtic’s dominance. They were purposeful and progressive from the start against a Motherwell side whose levels of confidence coming into the match were in the starkest possible contrast following their derby drubbing at Hamilton on New Year’s Day.
Continuing injury problems forced ’Well manager Ian Baraclough to hand 17-year-old Luke Watt his first-team debut at left-back and the visitors wasted little time in seeking to test the youngster’s readiness for such an assignment. Watt was caught out as early as the fourth minute when he found himself on the wrong side of David Goodwillie as the striker raced on to Peter Pawlett’s through ball. Fortunately for the home side, Goodwillie’s effort was too close to Dan Twardzik, who made a comfortable save at his left-hand post.
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The natural width and genuine pace in the Aberdeen ranks continued to pose problems for Motherwell. Niall McGinn found space to whip over a fine cross from the left which picked out the run of Rooney, who headed wide from close range under pressure from Watt. It was a torrid introduction to senior first-team football for Watt. He was beaten by Pawlett down Aberdeen’s right flank in the 14th minute, allowing an inviting cutback into the path of Goodwillie, who wastefully missed the ball with a fresh-air swipe.
It was one-way traffic and continued as Jonny Hayes almost caught out Twardzik with a dipping cross-cum-shot from the left which the ’keeper scrambled desperately to divert away for a corner. The only source of concern for McInnes at this stage would be his team’s failure to convert their early control of proceedings into a breakthrough. Motherwell offered little in response as an attacking threat, but the willing Henrik Ojamaa did offer a reminder of their potential threat on the break when he curled a long-range shot narrowly wide of Scott Brown’s left-hand post. Aberdeen quickly reclaimed the initiative, however, and took an overdue but deserved lead nine minutes before the interval. The goal was a defensive disaster for Motherwell, starting when right-back Fraser Kerr cheaply gave the ball straight to Andrew Considine.
He quickly clipped it infield from the left to Goodwillie, who delivered a perfect through ball into the path of Rooney, who was allowed a free run on goal by Stephen McManus’s ill-judged attempt to play him offside. Rooney showed admirable composure to clip a left-foot shot beyond the advancing Twardzik into the far corner of the net.
Aberdeen might easily have been out of sight by half-time as they continued to monopolise possession and territory. Pawlett should have done better than direct a left-foot shot wide from the edge of the penalty area, then McGinn was out of luck with a clever left-foot shot from 22 yards which struck the crossbar. The pattern was largely the same in the second half with Aberdeen on the front foot, although often lacking the precision of final pass necessary to create further clear-cut openings. The insurance of a second goal so nearly came their way in the 67th minute when Considine latched on to Shay Logan’s cross and looped a header against Twardzik’s left-hand post. Rooney seized on the loose ball to force Twardzik into a save, then Pawlett headed over from close range.
Motherwell finally forced Brown into his first save of the afternoon a minute later, the Dons ’keeper easily holding Josh Law’s tame effort. But the introduction of 18-year-old Dominic Thomas with 20 minutes remaining did spark the home side into their first period of any sustained attacking threat. The fleet-footed substitute looks a fine prospect but Motherwell were unable to take advantage of his lively promptings. The closest they came to a leveller was in the 75th minute when Ojamaa passed up a premium chance, scuffing his shot straight at Brown.
Goodwillie missed two clear opportunities to ease Aberdeen nerves. On both occasions, he was set up by the outstanding Ryan Jack – first of all dragging a shot wide from eight yards, then seeing an effort deflected wide off the back of the unwitting Twardzik. But the points were wrapped up a minute from the end of normal time. Referee Willie Collum had avoided any controversy until this point, but Motherwell were enraged by his decision to show McManus a straight red card when a Hayes shot was blocked on the line by the big defender’s arm.
It was involuntary on McManus’s part but that did not spare him from Collum’s harsh judgement. Rooney stepped up to rub salt in Motherwell’s wound, coolly sending Twardzik the wrong way with the resultant penalty kick to maintain Aberdeen’s eye-catching run of form
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