Aberdeen’s adventures are over after Gerard Gohou broke their spirits with a deflating opening goal after 60 minutes last night.
Kenny McLean’s late header to level the score on the night revitalised the Red Army. But despite the exhortations of these fans, the further goal that would have taken the tie into extra time remained just out of reach.
The home side’s labours were rendered redundant despite the tantalising glimmer of a comeback provided by McLean’s header with five minutes of normal time remaining. With Pittodrie in a ferment, these were later supplemented by five minutes of time added on.
McLean seems to be the only one scoring for the Pittodrie side at present. What the home supporters would have given for someone else – or even McLean himself – to score once more as Aberdeen furiously knocked on the door of the visitors. But these fans were left frustrated if not disheartened. The home players were applauded off at the end by the sell-out crowd.
They realised their heroes had fallen just short of ensuring extra-time at the very least on an absorbing evening of football in a place that seems to come alive on European nights. But Aberdeen failed to replicate a comeback of the sort when they defeated Hungarians Ujpest Dozsa in 1983-84, the last time the Pittodrie side overturned a first-leg deficit in Europe.
The opening spell was utterly frenetic. It was difficult to deduce which side had travelled nearly 4,000 miles from their base 200 miles from the Chinese border and which had rolled up from their homes in the Aberdeen vicinity.
Kairat were initially frisky, seemingly unencumbered by a longer than expected journey to Aberdeen from Almaty which meant they finally checked into their hotel on the outskirts of the city at 5am on the eve of the match.
But as far as Aberdeen fans were concerned, there were also some heartening signs that the visitors might find the task of defending their 2-1 first leg lead somewhat uncomfortable.
The normally untroubled playmaker Anatoliy Tymoshcuk collected a booking for an uncharacteristically clumsy foul on Graeme Shinnie. Giant centre-half Zarko Markovic, meanwhile, picked up an even earlier caution after 12 minutes, after going through the back of David Goodwillie.
On the stroke of half time Mikhail Bakaev became the third visiting player booked after a trip on Peter Pawlett. It was clear Kairat were going to have to work to secure their passage into the play-off round.
The partisan atmosphere that greeted them as they walked out at the start made them aware that nothing was going to come easily on such a night. Aberdeen fans packed all four stands at Pittodrie, conjuring up a wonderful atmosphere with their flags that recalled some of those European nights of old here.
The sold-out signs that were pinned to the ticket office widow on the day of the game spelled out the hope that existed in the city.
A small corps of Kairat fans were shoe-horned into a corner of the main stand. But they, too, were adding colour to the occasion with their yellow and black flags. As the game wore on, it was they who had reason to grow more confident.
The goal Aberdeen needed just wouldn’t come. And the one Kairat wanted to draw the sting out of the tie arrived on the hour mark from Gohou. It was the ultimate sucker-punch after such a bright start to the second half made by Aberdeen.
Derek McInnes wanted his players to feed off the home fans’ enthusiasm. The Tannoy announcer had called on the Red Army to be the 12th man before kick-off. They were certainly trying their hardest. One of their loudest cheers came in a bid to win a penalty after Pawlett had gone down rather theatrically following a challenge from Yermek Kuantayev just inside the box. The appeal was waved away by the referee Miroslav Zelinka, rightly so.
Aberdeen were pressing for the goal they so desperately needed and Jonny Hayes came closest to providing it in the first half when his shot from just outside the box fizzed past a post. While a goal didn’t come before half time the trick was to avoid panicking. They had succeeded in their main task of the opening 45 minutes – keeping the visitors out.
Niall McGinn also should have done better than slice a shot wide from another good position shortly after the re-start. This effort was made to seem all the more wasteful as Kairat secured the goal that put Aberdeen in serious trouble.
It arrived on the hour mark as Aberdeen struggled to clear the danger following a Kairat attack.
Mikhail Bakaev picked up the loose ball and his shot from 18 yards was blocked with a good one-handed save from Danny Ward, who got smartly down to his right. But Gohou was on hand to poke in the rebound.
The sturdy striker deserved the goal for having the presence of mind to anticipate the chance but it was hard to take for Aberdeen, after all the energy they had already expended, both in this leg and the one in Kazakhstan eight days ago.
McLean’s late headed goal after he got on the end of a McGinn free-kick with five minutes remaining meant there was the possibility that the tie might yet produce another twist.
But try though they did, and aided by five minutes of injury time, the second goal just wouldn’t come. Ward came up for a last corner but substitute Paul Quinn was the one who had the chance to save the tie. His header from McGinn’s set-piece was brilliantly tipped over by Vladimir Plotnikov.
But not even the rain that had suddenly started to fall could dampen spirits. Disappointed but unbowed, the Aberdeen fans showed their appreciation for the efforts of their players with sustained applause at the end.
Aberdeen: Ward; Logan, Considine, Taylor, Shinnie; Jack, McLean; McGinn, Pawlett (Rooney 70), Hayes (Flood, 83); Goodwillie (Quinn, 83).
Kairat: Plotnikov, Markovic, Bruno, Gorman, Kuantayev, Isael (Serginho, 83), Bakaev, Tymoschuk, Islamkhan, Lunin (Kuat 90), Gohou (Despotovic 78).
Referee: M Zelinka (Czech)