It’s true these sides approached this tie from very different standpoints. The Scottish Cup has become something of a holy grail for Aberdeen.
With Celtic bound to take some shifting from the top of the Premiership, the competition represents the Pittodrie side’s last real opportunity for silverware this season. This desire is made more fervent due to the time that has elapsed since Aberdeen last lifted the trophy, 28 years ago.
With this motivation in mind, together with the current gulf in quality between the two sides, it is unsurprising Aberdeen made relatively light work of their visitors. Adam Rooney showed most determination in a scrum of players to score his side’s 800th Scottish Cup goal after 20 minutes. When Gary Mackay-Steven added Aberdeen’s second seven minutes later it was beginning to look like the roof might cave in on United. That it did not is of some solace for United manager Csaba Laszlo.
Sam Stanton’s opportunistic strike 11 minutes before half-time briefly offered the visitors the promise of something more. But these hopes were extinguished within 60 seconds of the re-start. Kenny McLean’s header meant two goals separated the sides once more.
What does it mean in terms of the Championship title race? Well, if we are to use this game as a bellwether, Aberdeen found United slightly trickier opponents than St Mirren. The Tannadice side’s promotion rivals were visitors here in the last round and lost 4-1.
Yesterday’s tie followed a very similar pattern. Aberdeen established an early two-goal lead before Stanton brought the lower-league opponents back into things – as Gavin Reilly did when St Mirren were in town last month.
But another goal before half-time made things tricky indeed for the visitors before a strike from Mackay-Steven seemed to settle matters shortly after half-time. The visiting fans, who gathered in good numbers despite their team’s difficulties, were left to offer comment on how poor the home support was, often the last refuge of the vanquished.
But Paul McMullan’s curling effort with 20 minutes left, perhaps the strike of the afternoon/evening, offered some succour to the 900 visiting supporters. They displayed admirable fortitude to remain in situ in freezing conditions. These fans also exhibited plenty good humour, cheering each United player’s touch as their side put together a string of passes late on in the manner of a team seeing out time. So they were in a way. Even after McMullan cut the deficit to two goals after 70 minutes it was a case of too little too late.
These supporters will know Dundee United’s ambitions lie on a different horizon, of course. Billy Dodds, who counts both clubs as former teams, made the point last week that United might treat elimination as a blessing given their other, more critical objective in what’s left of this season. He has a point.
Laszlo made all the right noises about wanting United to muster some confidence for the challenges ahead with a shock victory. But from the moment the team-sheets were handed out this never seemed realistic. United were free to begin thinking about their next assignment, a trip to Livingston a week on Friday, from around ten minutes before half-time. Those such as McMullan, Scott McDonald and Thomas Mikkelsen, who all started on the bench before being brought on in the second-half, will expect to return.
Aberdeen looked as if they might score each time they broke up field. The pitch was not conducive to free-flowing, attacking football. But what there was of it was supplied by Aberdeen, whose forwards’ qualities helped them cope with the tricky surface.
To pour salt on United’s wounds their former winger Mackay-Steven was the game’s outstanding player. He was first to test Harry Lewis early on, the United goalkeeper doing well to repel Rooney’s effort from the rebound. It did not take Aberdeen long to make the breakthrough nevertheless. McLean was the architect after doing well to whip a cross over from the right.
Mackay-Steven hit a first-time volley into the ground and while it might have gone in anyway Rooney showed more determination than the United defenders in attendance to nudge the ball over the line with his head.
Aberdeen extended their lead on 27 minutes after a breakaway saw Niall McGinn feed Mackay-Steven, who finished well into the corner past Lewis.
Credit to United for seeming to prepare the way for a comeback after Stanton, pictured below, took advantage of slack play in the Aberdeen backline to sprint in on goal and finish into the corner past Freddie Woodburn. The cheers from the away fans were still echoing around the stadium when McLean leapt to angle a header into the far corner past Lewis after Ryan Christie’s exquisite chip into the box.
Mackay-Steven put Aberdeen firmly in the driving seat after 55 minutes after running on to a neat lay-off from Christie. His powerful shot beat Lewis at the near post. McMullan, who came on at half-time for the ineffectual Emil Lyng, gave the home fans a jolt with a fine second for United. Two good goals in an otherwise comprehensive and expected defeat might be considered a bonus for the visitors. They have far more urgent matters to attend to.