Aberdeen moved on from their Rangers humbling by battling to a 2-1 victory at St Johnstone to guarantee themselves a place in the Europa League next season.
If the mark of a good team is how they recover from a setback then Aberdeen did a decent job in underlining their credentials in this regard at McDiarmid Park. After the disappointment of their late implosion against Rangers the previous week they merited this victory on account of a blisteringly impressive opening to this game. Curiously, they ended up having to see out the closing stages through some fairly unadorned and gritty defending. However, such a compendium of ingredients is not a bad mix when you are chasing second spot and a cup final place.
Initially it looked as though Derek McInnes’ men were going to run riot here as a wonderful opening strike by on-loan Ryan Christie followed by an own goal by Tam Scobbie had them two up after 32 minutes. However, making a slow start is something of a recurring trait for St Johnstone and when they get going they can pose a threat to most sides in the Premiership.
It was almost a case of the return of the prodigal son as Danny Swanson, making a comeback as substitute for the Perth side along with fellow miscreant Richard Foster, pulled a goal back through an early second-half penalty. The Dons nonetheless kept them at bay after this and the contrasting facets of his side’s performance pleased McInnes.
“I thought the players dealt with the game brilliantly,” he reflected. “In the first half from the first minute we controlled the proceedings and dictated the pace of the game. We deservedly got two goals – it was everything I wanted as this could have been a really difficult game after last week.
“Once it went 1-2, the question was asked by St Johnstone and the players had to deal with that situation and other than not carrying the attacking threat that I would have wanted I thought we did really well. We kept St Johnstone’s chances to a minimum, although they had a lot of pressure – credit to them for coming at us, but I thought we deserved the win.”
Right from the off the visitors seemed driven by intent on demonstrating that their dramatic collapse against Rangers was simply a bad day at the office. They dominated the opening half hour and could easily have been more than a couple of goals to the good by the end of it. Johnny Hayes was having a rare old time delivering crosses into the danger area but the breakthrough owed everything to the tenacity of young Christie. After winning a challenge near the halfway line he exchanged passes with Adam Rooney and then drove forward before zipping a low drive past Alan Mannus.
Saints’ anaemic start was then compounded by Scobbie diverting the ball into his own net as yet another Hayes cross proved too hot to handle.
With a debacle in danger of unfolding in front of his eyes, Saints manager Tommy Wright didn’t hold back from undertaking some surgery on his formation with Blair Alston taken off and replaced by Swanson. The impact was almost immediate as he sent an outswinging corner that was cleared only as far as Paul Paton whose thumping shot was bravely blocked by Ash Taylor.
These stirrings of a Saints revival continued after the interval and within three minutes of the restart they had reduced the deficit with the help of a naïve challenge from behind by Anthony O’Connor on Steven MacLean. Referee Bobby Madden pointed to the spot and Swanson started the slow climb back from zero to hero by sending the penalty past Lewis with some precision. The adulation might have been ringing in his ears if a short while later the winger had made the most of a break that put him clear on the edge of the Dons box, but he snatched at his effort and it went harmlessly wide.
The balance of play had turned around remarkably with Aberdeen now looking heavy legged and robbed of their earlier fluency. But though the hosts probed and pushed hard in search of an equaliser they lacked sufficient craft to prise open the visitors’ rearguard once again. It was rugged and tousy which in the end suited the Dons as there was little in the way of real momentum towards Lewis’s goal but plenty towards their objective of finishing second.
“I wish we had started the game earlier – I think we showed them too much respect,” lamented Wright. “The two goals we conceded typified that.”