It was a compelling match and one worthy of top billing and from the first minute to the final seconds there was everything to play for.
There were three changes to the Hearts side from last week as Robbie Neilson attempted to find a winning formula, not just against Aberdeen this term but in the Scottish Cup. It is a competition which has certainly reaped rewards for the Tynecastle club, most notably in the 5-1 thrashing of city rivals Hibs in 2012, but the staggering fact is they went into this one having failed to score a goal in the tournament since Rudi Skacel netted in that match and they have not won a tie in the three subsequent years.
They will cite poor fortune, drawing a Hibs side desperate for a modicum of revenge the following year, followed by back-to-back pairings with league champions Celtic. Coming up against Aberdeen so early in this year’s event could be considered another piece of bad luck, especially as Derek McInnes’ men ran them ragged the first time they trooped south this season and they added another win to their record when they snatched a late winner at Pittodrie a few weeks ago.
Those results are one of the main reasons Aberdeen sit second in the league rather than Hearts but this was knockout competition and the previous tussles counted for nothing.
They were certainly not reflected in the play, as Hearts came charging at their guests, applying unrelenting pressure and refusing to let them settle. Osman Sow in positive mood forced a corner in only the second minute. Taken by Sam Nicholson and swung into the Alim Ozturk who rose above Andrew Considine and knocked it forward for Callum Paterson to head into Danny Ward’s net.
Three minutes later only a timely challenge from Willo Flood in the six-yard box prevented Sow from linking up with fellow striker Gavin Reilly to damaging effect, while the extent of Hearts dominance was demonstrated by the fact that even Nicholson was winning a header at the back post, getting on the end of Paterson’s crossfield ball.
If Aberdeen started at full throttle the last time they visited Gorgie, this time they were battered and bruised by the intensity of Hearts opening forays and unable to do much other than cling on for dear life and hope the tempo would slow and they could scramble a foothold.
But they were rattled and Mark Reynolds had to bundle Sow down as he again drove towards goal. The free kick was cleared but only to Arnaud Djoum whose deflected effort earned his side another corner.
It was a far cry from the trip to Pittodrie where Neilson had set his men up to foil Aberdeen. They did that more successfully yesterday but they did so by playing their own game and dictating a ferocious pace rather than simply employing spoiling tactics.
Flustered and in disarray, Aberdeen were contributing to their own problems, with miskicks and scrappy attempted clearances, That served up a shot for Migeul Pallardo and gave them corner after corner as they cranked up the pressure.
Sow skinned Reynolds again but no-one could connect with the cutback as the home side again charged at Ward’s goal and won another corner, which Blazej Augustyn was able to connect with in acres of space in a central area about 10 yards out. He just couldn’t get it on target.
in attack Hearts were ebullient, while the midfield was swamping their counterparts, winning first and second balls, Graeme Shinnie had a rare burst forward but even although it took a Pallardo foul to halt him, the resultant free kick was sent straight at Alexander.
Before the match, Neilson had talked about his frustration at the team’s inability to kill off games in recent weeks and for as long as they remained just a solitary goal ahead there was always hope for Aberdeen.
But even when Aberdeen tried to break, as Adam Rooney tried to turn Augustyn the big Pole simply stepped in front of him to play the ball forward for Nicholson to sting Ward’s hands. Corner after corner rained in and there were shouts for penalties but none were a row and two penalty shouts in the process, the strongest coming afters Reynolds pulled Augustyn down, but John Beaton waved those appeals aside. From the third one Kenny McLean had to head clear as another Hearts effort threatened to find the net.
Flood went off injured and the 37th minute and Rooney was fortunate not to be sent packing when he raised his hands to Augustyn. But he was shown yellow as was Rossi for his reaction.
Aberdeen showed more of that they have to offer in the second half but it was all about frantic and all a bit late as they tried to build on the growing tension in the Hearts ranks.
In the end they had to weather late Aberdeen pressure, including the appearance of Ward in the area for late set pieces, but they held firm and finally remembered how to win a tie.