After a painful Old Firm defeat put paid to their Scottish Cup aspirations and manager Ronny Deila’s inevitable summer-time departure was confirmed, Celtic were finally given relief at the climax to a horrible week as Aberdeen failed in their quest to reduce the champions’ eight-point gap at the summit of the Premiership.
Dons manager Derek McInnes was insistent ahead of his return to old club St Johnstone that his side’s title bid was not yet over. Yet, his players performed right from the off as if they had little belief in their boss’s claims.
First-half goals by David Wotherspoon and Steven MacLean, and a third perfectly good “goal” chalked off by referee Craig Thomson, were a clear indication of the gulf in quality during an opening period in which the home side, seemingly with little to play for, appeared to be the ones chasing the league leaders.
An all-too-easy third by Liam Craig early in the second half left Aberdeen’s aspirations of a late challenge to Celtic in tatters and leaves them vulnerable to Hearts just eight points adrift in third place ahead of the Tynecastle side’s trip to face Motherwell this afternoon. This result means Aberdeen have now lost 12 goals to St Johnstone this season, a costly statistic.
An initial three-man defence seemed as unfamiliar to the Aberdeen players on the pitch as it was unexpected by anyone watching on, and it was abandoned by McInnes before the first half an hour was over. There was an uncertainty about the Dons’ display throughout, and at the back they played as if strangers.
Young centre-half Michael Rose, who spent time on loan with Forfar Athletic earlier in the season, was solid enough on his debut but could have expected greater help from the experienced pair of Mark Reynolds and Andrew Considine beside him. The 20-year-old was sacrificed at half-time but was far from the worst offender in red on a woeful night for the visitors.
There were only four minutes gone when Saints threatened for the first time and they barely looked back throughout a dominant display.
The woodwork saved Aberdeen when Joe Shaughnessy bulleted his header against the crossbar from Wotherspoon’s corner when it seemed easier to score from just three yards out. However, there was to be no let-up for an overworked Dons rearguard as time ticked on.
The lead was established in just the 14th minute when Wotherspoon’s 25-yard free-kick curled up and over the defensive wall and found the bottom corner of the net. Scott Brown’s despairing dive to his right seemed to take place in slow motion and the goalkeeper only succeeded in palming the ball over the line.
After Chris Millar speared a shot wide on the break when more pace could have afforded him a clearer opportunity, Thomson’s errant whistle denied St Johnstone a second. Another Wotherspoon corner from the left sailed over Brown and was knocked in by Steven Anderson at the back post, but the keeper found a friend in the referee when replays indicated he had in fact fallen over team-mate Ryan Jack. It took only another four minutes for the Perth side to double their lead, however.
Aberdeen failed yet again to deal with an aerial assault and, when Anderson nodded down Tam Scobbie’s searching free-kick, the slightest touch by MacLean carried the ball over the line.
The half-time whistle would have been a welcome sound for McInnes and his men, and the introduction of Barry Robson for Rose was his response. Yet, any hopes of a second-half comeback were extinguished within ten minutes of the restart.
The Reds defence parted alarmingly as MacLean was allowed to find Craig on the left side of the area and he rolled his shot beyond Brown with aplomb. Substitute Robson tried his best to inject some enthusiasm into Aberdeen’s insipid display but their eagerness for battle will have been as much of a concern to McInnes as the dearth in quality.
Watching every player in red stand like statues rather than chase down the ball after a short clearance in defence will have enraged the passionate McInnes prowling his technical area.
There was nothing Jonny Hayes could do but hold out his hands in frustration moments later, however, after he fell over the ball on the touchline.
Even when Robson found the bottom corner with a delightful free-kick four minutes from time he found Saints keeper Zander Clark, in for a rare start in place of Alan Mannus, equal to it with an excellent stop.
It was one of those nights for the men in red.