ADAM Rooney scored his fourth goal of the week as Aberdeen defeated Scottish Premiership rivals St Johnstone 1-0 in a friendly at Brechin’s Glebe Park.
Rooney netted a hat-trick, which included two penalties, at the same venue on Wednesday as the Dons beat Brechin 8-2 and the Irish striker was on target again with a spot-kick yesterday.
Both teams used the game as a warm-up for their respective Europa League first qualifying round first-leg ties this week, when Aberdeen travel to Macedonia to face KF Shkendija and St Johnstone make the trip to Armenia to take on Alashkert FC.
The first half was very competitive but short of chances at either end. After the break Dons fans got their first look at new goalkeeper Danny Ward, signed on a season-long loan deal from Liverpool, as he replaced Scott Brown.
The 22-year-old made an impressive debut, commanding his area well and looking confident when called upon.
Rooney ensured Aberdeen head to Skopje on a high for Thursday night’s Europa League tie when he sent Alan Mannus the wrong way from the penalty spot in the 71st minute after Niall McGinn was brought down inside the area by Brian Easton.
“Results are not the most important thing although it is always nice to win,” said Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes afterwards. “The main aim today was to get minutes under the players’ belts. Some players were needing a full 90 minutes which they managed to get.
“It was also important to get some confidence into the players ahead of Thursday’s game. Whatever way you get that confidence from, whether it be from your general fitness, your sharpness, goals for strikers, clean sheets for the defenders or whether it is just from winning the game, it is important each player feels confident going into the match.”
Looking ahead to the Shkendija tie, McInnes added: “You always want to win your first game of the season. No matter what competition you are playing in and you want to get the season up and running. You want to get that confidence running through the team.
“We have said time and time again we want to do well in Europe. We understand the importance of it to the club. We have put the demand on ourselves to be ready and we are ready. On that plane we have the players to do the job.”
As well as two pre-season friendly victories in the past few days, Aberdeen should also take comfort from the fact Thursday’s game against Shkendija has been switched to Macedonia’s capital city of Skopje. That’s according to the country’s top player, Agim Ibraimi, who said at the weekend that he believes Aberdeen will subsequently be spared a red-hot welcome.
Philip II Arena, the venue for the Dons’ first-leg tie, is the home ground of Shkendija’s bitter rivals, Vardar. “This is like Celtic having to play a European tie at Rangers’ ground,” said Ibraimi, the gifted Maribor winger who is poised to be named as Macedonia’s footballer of the year for the third season in a row.
Ibraimi, a Shkendija fan, added: “This is better for Aberdeen. If the game was played in Tetovo then it’s very difficult to play there because of the atmosphere and the backing the fans give Shkendija. They are our 12th man. It’s not like Skopje. The capital city is where our big rivals Vardar come from. It is like Celtic playing their home game at Rangers’ ground. That’s not easy to do.”
The complex backdrop of Macedonian football has echoes of Glasgow. The country has deep divisions caused by ethnic and religious affiliation, which not even the creation of an independent country in 1991 – breaking away from Yugoslavia – have healed.
About 65 per cent of Macedonia’s two million population are Macedonian and Eastern Orthodox Christians – including Vardar’s fans – while 34 per cent are Muslim, mostly ethnic Albanians like Ibraimi.
More than half of Tetovo’s 53,000 inhabitants are Albanian and a giant Albanian flag covered one entire end when Partizan Belgrade went there for a Champions League qualifier in 2011, with Serbian boss Aleksander Stanojevic admitting his side were outplayed by Shkendija because of the intimidating atmosphere.
“The people live for Shkendija,” said Ibraimi. “There is an ultras group, the Ballistet, who organise lots of spectacular displays but it’s not just them. All the supporters are fanatical.
“Most coaches and players who have played there will tell you it’s a tough place to win. The people of Tetovo love football. Our other big rivals, Teteks, are also from the town. It is a shame that people will not be able to see Aberdeen there and I don’t know how many will go to Skopje – it is 40 kilometres away.”
Ibraimi also soothed Aberdeen’s fears about the heat by insisting that the temperatures for the evening kick-off on Thursday will be half of the daytime values. “In the evening it is not so hot,” said Ibraimi. “It’s about 20 degrees. That is better for both teams.”
Ibraimi has played at Parkhead and Ibrox for Maribor in recent years and knocked both Celtic and Rangers out of Europe. Now he yearns for Shkendija to match the Slovenian giantkillers and deliver another blow to Scottish football. “This will be a tough game for Aberdeen,” he continued. “I would love to be in Skopje but sadly I will be watching it on the internet because Maribor are in training for our own Champions League qualifier in Astana. I would love to see Shkendija doing what Maribor did to Celtic and Rangers.”