HEARTS were the more physical side but mentally Aberdeen showed enough fight to earn the three points. The win also invited the kind of questions they would rather steer clear of.
Scorers: Aberdeen – Rooney (87)
Just one point behind Celtic, albeit that the Glasgow club have two games in hand, they were asked if they could again start looking above them. Manager Derek McInnes refused to bite. A knowing smile was accompanied by the party line about simply focusing on their own games.
But the Pittodrie boss must surely be more confident about his side’s chances of finishing second. They have now opened up a gap between themselves and Hearts and St Johnstone, and while Gorgie boss Robbie Neilson felt that there were solid signs of progress in his men’s performance, having been trounced when the teams met back in September, the fact he is willing to accept the kind of costly mistake committed by young Jordan McGhee as a byproduct of pushing forward with the grand plan to develop youth players, could be an obstacle in trying to pip McInnes’ men.
“I think it was a very tight game,” Neilson said. “We had a couple of chances we should have scored. All in all I’m disappointed not to take anything from it but I think we are moving in the right direction. I’m disappointed with the way we lost the goal but that’s football. It happens all the time and if you don’t want to make mistakes like that you don’t play young kids.
“We are a team that is going to develop young players and we have to accept mistakes.”
There had been a few rash moments from some of the more experienced players, with Neilson admitting he had taken Miguel Pallardo off after he was fortunate to escape a second yellow card minutes after his first.
But while Aberdeen dominated the first half, setting the tempo of the game and allowing Hearts little time or space in possession, Hearts remained in the match until the final few minutes when a rush of blood to teenager McGhee’s head saw him raise his arm to swat away a cross into the back post. His head was in his hands before he had hit the ground. He escaped a red card, with the referee deciding it was a deliberate handball but deciding it had not denied a clear goalscoring opportunity.
In the end Adam Rooney dished out the punishment, slotting the spot kick below the diving Neil Alexander to finally break the deadlock and secure all three points.
It was just rewards for Aberdeen who had been forced to abandon their own gameplan at times and dig in against a Hearts side determined to break up the game and disrupt the flow. They succeeded for large chunks of the afternoon.
But for a 15-minute period of the second half, Hearts reminded us why they have been up there challenging Aberdeen for second. Juanma forced a save, Sam Nicholson struck the bar and Callum Paterson and then Osman Sow were denied by Willo Flood on the goal line. Aberdeen, however, were not to be beaten. Having lost their momentum after their last meeting with Hearts, replacing an eight-game unbeaten run with six matches without a win, they were determined to continue their recent return to fine form with another win.
While Hearts tried to barge, bully and buffet them throughout the game, they dug their heels in, with Jonny Hayes a constant threat while the midfield were perpetual motion. They just couldn’t get the finish their play merited. Kenny McLean flashed an effort across goal in 10 minutes, begging for someone to get a toe to it but instead Neil Alexander intervened. Rooney had a couple of chances, while Hayes rifled a shot from the edge of the box when he pounced on a clearing header but his effort was straight at Alexander. In the second half Rooney’s header skited just over the bar.
A bruising affair for Hearts’ aspirations and the Aberdeen players who had to ride the tackles and get back up again as Hearts refused to give in without a fight.
“We expected a tough match,” conceded McInnes, “and sometimes you have to fight your corner. That side of things was good because I think that was the main reason we probably weren’t winning games. I think there was a period of five or six games where I felt we were getting dominated and a bit bullied at times but I think we showed a determination not to let that be the case.”