Aberdeen warmed up for next Sunday’s silverware tilt at Hampden Park with a strong, confident but slightly controversial beating of recent bogey team Inverness. The party mood among the faithful was visibly building by full-time.
League Cup final opponents Celtic, ten points ahead in the league, will represent more than a banana skin test at the national stadium, but the belief and ebullience of the Red Army was reflected at the final whistle in the entry of a banana costume-clad pitch invader.
It took stewards quite some time to wrestle down the Dons-supporting miscreant and the comical muddle mirrored the trouble Inverness repeatedly had in stifling the exuberance of Jonny Hayes, James Maddison and Kenny McLean, the scorer of two goals.
The dash of controversy, in the Dons first win over the Highlanders in five attempts, stemmed from the home side’s belief refereeing errors preceded both of the first two Aberdeen goals.
Graeme Shinnie also escaped punishment for a late and dangerous lunge that led to Caley Thistle’s Brad McKay being stretchered off. It later proved to be only bruising to the shin.
Aberdeen still sit a point above Rangers in second position, but could deservedly forget all that last night and turn the focus towards Sunday’s big opportunity.
“It’s good to be going into the cup final on the back of two wins,” Derek McInnes, the Aberdeen manager, said. “I’m pleased with the way we’re playing. We have certain players in good form so we go there in good shape.
“Celtic have proved a tough nut to crack for everyone this season so people don’t expect anything other than a victory for them. But I’m confident we have the players who have the ability to win a cup.
“I am just delighted to be talking about a cup final because that’s where this club should be. We will need to get the balance right between attacking and defending, but our intention is to go there and try to win the cup. We will only enjoy it fully if we can do that.”
The Dons opened with bright intent. Home palpitations were initially the order of the day. Ross Draper’s slack pass served to release young James Maddison menacingly, but the on-loan Fulham talent was clumsily heavy on his through pass towards Jayden Stockley.
Maddison was more astute in testing Owain Fon Williams with a powerful attempt soon after but it was the Dons’ defence, flimsy at times in that first half, who buckled first after 15 minutes.
Draper supplied the cross from the right and the away rearguard were alert to the danger far too late as Lonsana Doumbouya, freshly capped by Guinea against the Democratic Republic of Congo, stooped to flick an eight-yard backward header hard beyond the reach of keeper Joe Lewis. It was a quality finish – Doumbouya’s fifth of the season.
Aberdeen were jolted into action. It took a fine Gary Warren block on Stockley, as he turned swiftly on to Hayes low cut-back to the edge of the penalty area, to prevent a quick-fire reply.
The Dons were level after 28 minutes. The hosts felt Aaron Doran was wrongly punished for a foul awarded to Maddison.
The sense of injustice heightened as McLean sent a brilliant free-kick swerving over the wall and low past Fon Williams inside his right-hand post.
Further home dissent greeted referee Kevin Clancy as Aberdeen took a 33rd minute lead.
The hosts claimed there had been an infringement on Larnell Cole before Hayes tore away on a trademark surge from near the halfway line.
There was no stopping the explosive Irishman, at least until Warren did so illegally with a clip to the heels to the left side of the box. Countryman Adam Rooney stepped up to slam in the spot-kick.
The home keeper had to make a clutch of saves in the second period with the gliding, probing runs of young Maddison a feature. From his corner, a strong Andrew Considine header was touched over superbly by Fon Williams.
But Maddison also found himself in the book for an alleged dive just inside the home penalty area. Referee Clancy, though, somehow missed the severity of a 73rd minute clash that left Caley Thistle’s McKay writhing after being caught late by Shinnie.
It was all over, though, when Hayes broke at pace, darted towards the home box and released a pass just as Josh Meekings crashed through him. Clancy waved play on and McLean slipped a calm, side-footed finish past Williams to settle the match.
McInnes would love to witness repeat scenes of celebration in seven days’ time.