How Aberdeen's seven changes backfired as Dario Zanatta-inspired Raith pounce on Jack Gurr's hesitancy to cause cup shock

Raith Rovers have been stirring under John McGlynn for the past 12 months.

Dario Zanatta celebrates with Reghan Tumilty after scoring Raith Rovers' winner against Aberdeen.
Dario Zanatta celebrates with Reghan Tumilty after scoring Raith Rovers' winner against Aberdeen.

They finished third in the Championship last season and ran Dundee close in the play-offs, smashed Fife rivals Dunfermline 5-1 at Stark’s Park and won plenty of plaudits for the way they play fast, attractive, attacking football.

But this victory, a 2-1 win over high-flying Premiership outfit Aberdeen to progress to the quarter-finals of the Premier Sports Cup, is arguably their biggest scalp since the manager returned to the club in 2018.

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Trailing the Dons 1-0 at the interval thanks to a magnificent strike from Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, Rovers came out swinging in the second period. With nothing to lose, they attacked and got the rewards, first via young Stoke loanee Ethon Varian and then from Dario Zanatta, who put in a man-of-the-match display down the left wing, to record a 2-1 success.

Jay Emmanuel-Thomas gives Aberdeen the lead with a fierce strike against Raith Rovers.

Raith’s start to the league 2021/22 campaign has been slightly disappointing, blowing a 4-0 lead at home to Hamilton on opening day to draw 4-4 and then losing 1-0 to Inverness. In this tournament, it’s a different story, topping their group and then toppling Aberdeen.

This is a sore result for Stephen Glass and his players, puncturing their high morale after good results in the league and in Europe. Mindful of Thursday’s trip to Azerbaijan to face Qarabag in the first leg of their Europa Conference League play-off tie, Glass rang the changes. Niall McGinn, Jonny Hayes, Connor McLennan, Teddy Jenks, Funso Ojo, Jack Gurr and Emmanuel-Thomas replenished the ranks, with Andy Considine, Calvin Ramsay, Jack MacKenzie, Scott Brown, Lewis Ferguson, Ryan Hedges and Christian Ramirez dropping out from the team that defeated Breidablik three days earlier.

Aberdeen started the game with purpose and took the lead on 14 minutes when Emmanuel-Thomas launched an unstoppable drive high beyond Jamie MacDonald, his first goal for the club. “JET, JET will tear you apart, again,” sang the boisterous thousand-strong Aberdeen support in the McDermid Stand. It was as good as it got for them.

Whether complacency crept into Aberdeen’s ranks, ahead at the break against lesser-ranked team, or fatigue became a factor due to the volume of matches, their level dipped. The game had been fairly even despite the Dons’ lead, and while they had more possession, they never overwhelmed their hosts.

It offered Raith some hope. Former Hearts winger Zanatta was the catalyst for their comeback. The Canadian charged down the left on 48 minutes and won a free-kick right on the edge of the box after Jack Gurr hauled him down. Reghan Tumilty curled in one of those menacing, pacey low crosses that are a nightmare to defend and young Varian, on loan from Stoke, stole in across the face of goal to poke the ball high beyond Joe Lewis for the equaliser.

The momentum of the tie had swung in Raith’s favour. Aidan Connolly stung Lewis’ palms with a fierce drive on 66 minutes and, five minutes later, Blaise Riley-Snow hit a very similar shot that the Aberdeen keeper parried away. This time, Zanatta was quickest to the rebound and pinched the ball ahead of a hesitant Gurr and thrashed it into the net.

Aberdeen tried to respond by summoning Scott Brown, Lewis Ferguson, Christian Ramirez and Ryan Hedges from the bench. But the horse had bolted. Marshalled by stalwart defender Christophe Berra, Raith held on for a memorable victory.