Aberdeen produced a solid performance to put their Scottish Cup disappointment behind them and reclaim the initiative in the three-way battle for second place in the Premiership as Kilmarnock were denied a sixth straight league win for the first time in more than half-a-century.
Goals in either half from Kenny McLean and Shay Logan proved the difference and visiting manager Derek McInnes declared: “Two-nil was no great margin but we deserved the win against a Killie team who are as competitive and good as us.
“We scored goals at a good time in a very tight game – Kenny McLean’s quality for his first goal separated the teams but even after the second we had to stay focused. When they put on front player after front player and Kris Boyd is still on the pitch you’ve got to maintain your concentration levels, but we were good value for the points against the form team in the league.”
In the sunshine at Rugby Park, McInnes was able to restore three experienced campaigners in Shay Logan, Kenny McLean and captain Graeme Shinnie, who all missed the debacle at Hampden last week through suspension.
Killie supremo Steve Clarke, by contrast, had to do without both Youssouf Mulumbu and Jordan Jones who had been doubtful due to hamstring problems.
As early as the second minute Aberdeen looked to open the scoring. Stevie May was fouled on the left and the free-kick was headed powerfully at goal by Scott McKenna but Leo Fasan in the home goal produced an excellent save.
The Dons then went on to exert an early stranglehold, Anthony O’Connor almost opening the scoring with an excellent header from a corner that went close.
At last Kilmarnock produced some excitement of their own when pressure in the Dons box ended with Alan Power ignoring Kris Boyd to shoot low, forcing Joe Lewis to dive to his left to save well. The effort triggered an improved spell for Killie who began to look the more likely.
Combined play on the left ended with Kirk Broadfoot finding Greg Taylor, who had Boyd waiting for a pass but McKenna appeared in the nick of time and intercepted.
Five minutes later it was a classy tackle that took the ball from Boyd – this time the Aberdeen hero was O’Connor.
Though there had been plenty of action and some nice play, the half began to look as though it would end goalless. But in the 37th minute a goal arrived, so unexpected in the context of play that it was received in near-silence.
Nice passing on the edge of the home half saw Greg Stewart send it to Ryan Christie, who in similar fashion moved it to McLean. Another nice pass looked on. Perhaps Fasan thought as much because he was late in getting down to deal with McLean’s low snapshot from 35 yards which left the net shimmering behind the Killie goalkeeper.
Killie started the second half positively, with Boyd twice in action. He rose to a corner from the right to head low on to the right-hand post of Lewis. Two minutes later he rose to a cross from Stephen O’Donnell but headed over.
The first tousy incident of the match saw referee Nick Walsh book Aberdeen’s McLean plus, to the ire of the majority of the crowd of 5,067, O’Donnell.
In 59 minutes the Dons gave themselves some breathing space by adding to their lead when a free-kick by May from the right was headed goalwards by O’Connor. Fasan saved well but Logan was on hand to bundle home the rebound.
Kilmarnock started to play the ball long, which Aberdeen mopped up comfortably enough. With six minutes left the visitors nearly made it three when Stewart set Adam Rooney – who came off the bench on his 30th birthday – in the clear but his shot was deflected by the left leg of spread-eagled Fasan.
McInnes will take nothing for granted in the battle for second place. “Hopefully this sets us up for the Hearts game on Friday at Pittodrie because we will need a lot more three points if we are to finish second,” he added.
Home manager Steve Clarke said: “We were missing some influential guys today and it was disruptive but there are no excuses.
“It took us time to settle into a new formation and that’s what cost us the first goal – we had six in line but nobody pressed the ball to stop the shot. Give him [McLean] a chance and he has a good strike.”