THEIR FANS travelled in their thousands as always, but this was another reminder that to be title challengers often means having to do it the hard way. For the first time in the league since October, when they lost 3-0 to Hamilton Accies in another Friday night fixture, Aberdeen were forced to respond to losing the first goal.
St Johnstone - 1
Aberdeen - 1
Referee: B Madden
St Johnstone took a deserved lead on the half-hour mark through Simon Lappin but were pegged back by Adam Rooney’s stunning equaliser 12 minutes after half-time. Rather than then going all out for the winner, Aberdeen were simply grateful to leave McDiarmid Park with anything at all.
Rooney’s contribution was matched by that of goalkeeper Scott Brown, whose late double-save from David Wotherspoon and substitute Michael O’Halloran was as vital as it was breathtaking.
Whether this point, together with the one earned in last-gasp fashion versus Dundee last weekend, prove significant in the final analysis remains to be seen. Celtic remain top on goal difference and could extend their lead further today, against Ross County.
With Parkhead manager Ronny Deila and his assistant John Collins looking on from the stand, St Johnstone had quickly taken control. The hosts’ need for points was not quite so glamorous. Rather than maintain a title bid, St Johnstone are looking over their shoulders at rivals Dundee’s bid to overtake them in the top six.
But the Perth side paid for not making the most of several chances to establish a lead of more than just one goal against opponents who scrapped for everything as they sought to avoid disappointing a big travelling support.
Buoyed by Rooney’s equaliser, Aberdeen strained every sinew in their search for a precious winner, literally so in the case of substitute Cammy Smith, whose diving header went inches past the post in those frantic late stages.
As against Dundee on Saturday, Aberdeen turned to substitute Lawrence Shankland for inspiration and he almost provided it with a shot on the turn that Alan Mannus grabbed at the second attempt.
Credit to St Johnstone, though, who kept on pushing until the end, and should have secured the points in injury time through the chance from O’Halloran that was so brilliantly saved by Brown, after he had tipped aside Wotherspoon’s effort.
In what was their third game in six days, the energy with which St Johnstone started the match was both impressive and perhaps surprising. Their much-changed line-up perhaps helped in this respect; only five of the starting team who lost to Inverness Caledonian Thistle on Tuesday night were handed starting berths again.
Chris Kane, who has recently been brought back from a loan spell at Dumbarton, was one of those drafted in, although he had appeared as a first-half substitute earlier this week. Aged just 21, he clearly has some energy to burn.
He was one of those home players who gave the Aberdeen defence a torrid time in those early stages. Kane almost scored after only two minutes following a slip by Andrew Considine. With the ball running away from him, Kane managed to stab an effort towards goal that was saved by Brown’s legs. This set the tone for much of what happened in the opening 57 minutes, before Rooney struck in such an opportunistic manner.
A Lappin free-kick whistled past the post shortly afterwards before Kane went close with another effort that skipped just wide. Wotherspoon missed with the best chance of the lot when shooting high over the bar from ten yards.
There was still only seven minutes on the clock. Could the high-octane start be sustained, the St Johnstone fans wondered. The Aberdeen support, who were housed in both ends of McDiarmid Park, hoped it couldn’t.
Their hopes that the hosts had already blown themselves out were dashed, although Aberdeen themselves came close to opening the scoring following a poor pass-back by Wotherspoon. Peter Pawlett almost capitalised on the slip but Mannus did well to block with his legs. However, St Johnstone were not finished. Theirs was a start that deserved a goal, and it duly arrived on the half-hour mark.
Jonny Hayes was guilty of failing to close down Gary Millar on the St Johnstone right and the midfielder’s cross asked sufficient questions of the Aberdeen goalkeeper to prove profitable. Brown could only tip the ball clear from a melee of players and it dropped invitingly for Lappin, who, from a distance of eight yards, volleyed in his first goal for the club.
But Aberdeen were shaken from their lethargy. In the time left before the break they starting putting the St Johnstone defence under some belated pressure. David Goodwillie hit the bar with a header from Niall McGinn’s cross and the striker, who recently extended his contract at the club, might also have bundled in a Ryan Jack free-kick at the far post. St Johnstone, however, were able to clear.
Remarkably, Aberdeen, who replaced Willo Flood with Smith at half-time, started the second half almost as poorly as the first. They were thankful for the let-off when Lee Croft struck the post inside the first minute after the re-start. Had he steered the ball in, there might have been little prospect of Aberdeen salvaging something from the game. But as so often happens, the relief felt by Aberdeen was used as impetus for a prolonged spell of pressure.
Rooney’s goal was sourced not from a patient build-up, however. Rather, it stemmed from a long ball forward from the back that was flicked on by Goodwillie and then pounced on by Rooney, whose first-time shot from 20 yards evaded Mannus’ despairing dive. Indeed, the goalkeeper had simply done well to get a hand to the ball as it soared over him into the far corner of the net.
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