Aberdeen exited the Europa League last night after a disastrous injury-time goalkeeping error by Joe Lewis, but Adam Rooney missed a first-half penalty and hardline Bulgarian referee Nikola Popov sent off substitute Jayden Stockley for two bookings eight minutes after coming on.
Derek McInnes’ side knew they had to score in Maribor after last week’s 1-1 home draw but, just like last week in the first leg, failed to take their chances and exited for the third year in a row at the third qualifying round. But Popov angered the Scots after a string of contentious decisions.
He opted not to send off Maribor goalkeeper Jasmin Handanovic after he brought down Rooney in the box, nor did he allow advantage to be played with Niall McGinn subsequently scoring.
He then extremely harshly showed two quickfire yellow cards to sub Stockley moments after he came on.
But McInnes will be kicking himself at the Dons’ exit because they battered Maribor – who have now added Aberdeen to their list of recent Scottish conquests including Celtic, Rangers and Hibs – in both legs and should have been in today’s draw.
McInnes opted to bin last week’s bold 4-4-2 formation in favour of his tried and trusted 4-2-3-1 and Wes Burns came in to replace the massive loss of hamstring injury victim Jonny Hayes. Kenny McLean also came back in for Jayden Stockley.
There was a touching minute’s silence after the deaths of two youth players from Maribor, Damjan Marjanovic and Zoran Baljak, who died in a car crash this week. McInnes and skipper Ryan Jack also laid a wreath earlier in the day in a shrine outside the stadium.
With temperatures climbing above 30 degrees during the day, it was still very hot and humid inside a packed Stadiun Ljudski vrt, which had a cracking atmosphere, aided by the 400 Dons fans who had travelled.
The home side were perfectly content seemingly to allow the Scots plenty of possession, after their precious away goal, but it backfired after they gifted Aberdeen a penalty in the 24th minute.
Marko Suler, who looked unsettled in the first leg, was woefully short with a passback and Rooney nipped in to take the ball round keeper Handanovic, who chopped him down. McGinn eventually rolled the ball into the empty net, but the ref made his decision a few seconds earlier and didn’t consider playing the advantage.
Unfortunately for Aberdeen, with Fifa’s change of rule earlier this year, the offence is no longer deemed to be an automatic red card if the referee believes a genuine attempt was made to have played the ball and Popov only issued a yellow card.
Worse still for the Dons, Rooney’s resulting spot-kick was saved by the giant keeper’s legs – the first penalty that the former Inverness Caley Thistle striker had missed for Aberdeen in 15 attempts.
That gave Maribor huge encouragement and, really for the first time in the game, they launched a few waves of attacks, all of which were dealt with by the Dons.
They came even closer with three minutes to go before the break when an Andrew Considine header allowed Graeme Shinnie to burst through, but Aberdeen were again denied by a splendid stop by the keeper, who had raced from his goal to save with his feet again. Shinnie was perhaps fortunate to escape a red card for a very poor lunge indeed on Blaz Vrhovec and he was only booked.
But Aberdeen were utterly stunned when sub Stockley was shown two yellow cards and sent off eight minutes after coming on. Both were for what the Bulgarian whistler deemed to be elbowing while jumping for a high ball, but the player and his colleagues were clearly baffled by the decision.
McInnes threw on Miles Storey in a desperate bid to get that crucial goal and Aberdeen were still having the better of the encounter.
Then came that awful howler by Lewis when he took a fresh-air swipe at Shinnie’s backpass after the ball took a bobble and it rolled into the net.
It was extremely harsh on Aberdeen who were certainly the better side over the two legs.