Scorers: Aberdeen - Pawlett 69
Dundee United can edge them out by defeating Celtic, but Derek McInnes looks to have assembled a squad with the right balance in attack and defence to finish the campaign as the defending champions’ closest challengers.
They have now won six of their last seven league matches without conceding a single goal, with a trip to Inverness coming up next Sunday.
There’s unlikely to be much in the way of festive spirit down Rugby Park way after this latest defeat left a team who started the season so positively now resembling too many Kilmarnock sides of Christmas past.
Elimination from the Scottish Cup by Rangers has come during a run of just one point from the last seven league matches, their worst sequence in the top division for eight years.
Hardly surprising then that only a light sprinkling of their supporters chose the long day trip to Pittodrie over the dubious pleasures of some last-minute shopping. They were rewarded with a spirited, if ultimately futile, performance from a side who have had more than their fair share of injuries to key players – Tope Obadeyi joined Sammy Clingan and Aleksei Eremenko on the sidelines for this game.
If manager Allan Johnston thought it couldn’t get worse then he was sadly disappointed as promising right back Darryl Westlake suffered what looked like a serious injury three minutes from the interval.
Aberdeen striker David Goodwillie was cautioned for the late tackle from behind that saw Westlake stretchered off and bound for hospital for and an X-ray on a damaged ankle as Ross Barbour took over.
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The one consolation for the Kilmarnock players was that they at least reached the interval on level terms after 45 minutes almost totally controlled by their impressive opponents.
Pace, movement and no little skill saw the Dons attack with variety and imagination, only a lack of a more ruthless edge in front of goal preventing them capitalising on that fully.
For example Adam Rooney could, and probably should, have added another couple of goals to his already impressive tally as the visitors’ defence failed to track the Irishman as he found space to turn a Jonny Hayes free kick wide then Craig Samson watched with relief as Rooney shot over the bar after the Kilmarnock goalkeeper parried Hayes’ shot straight at him.
That was in the first ten minutes alone and with the visitors struggling to get out of their own half for long spells, they enjoyed another huge let-off in 20 minutes when Goodwillie nearly split the crossbar with a driving effort, then Niall McGinn went close twice before the interval.
The frame of the goal saved Johnston’s side again within two minutes of the restart after some quick thinking and even quicker feet from Goodwillie inside the penalty area when seemingly surrounded by defenders.
His controlled spin opened space followed by an exquisite reverse pass which picked out Pawlett only for the midfielder’s acute angled shot to ping off the far post.
Not that his frustration lasted too long, as the mercurial Hayes, who always looked the most likely to create a decisive moment, did just that after Manuel Pascali cheaply surrendered possession. The Irishman’s run and shot caused consternation, mostly for Samson, who pushed the ball out, where Pawlett was lurking to ram in a deserved winner, much to his and the team’s relief.
“I was delighted to get that goal and take the pressure off a bit,” said Pawlett. “The fans did get frustrated at the start of the second half but we know how to cope with that now.
“Some games are good on the eye and in others you have to dig deep to get the win and the good thing is this team have that balance needed to do both to get the results.”
Johnston is having to get used to dealing with frustrations of his own and said: “I’m disappointed for the players as they put an incredible amount of effort into the game.”
Aberdeen: Brown; Logan, Taylor, Reynolds, Considine; McGinn, Jack, Pawlett, Hayes; Goodwillie ((Monakana 73), Rooney. Subs not used: Langfield, Murray, Robson, Smith, Shankland, Gibbons.
Kilmarnock: Samson; Westlake (Barbour 42), Ashcroft, Pascali, Chantler; McKenzie (Johnston 78), Slater, Hamill, Magennis; Muirhead, Miller (Cairney 78). Subs not used: Brennan, O’Hara, Syme, Hawkshaw.
Referee: A Dallas. Attendance: 11,282.
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