How Aberdeen answered Hearts Euro question as two players sum up Rangers predicament as Celtic pressure mounts
The Dons fans in the Red Shed sang and sang. And sang again as it reverberated around Pittodrie. Looking back to 1983, that famous year, the most famous, in the club's history, to look forward to what is so very, very close to being another, 40 years later in 2023. As the rain fell in the Granite City, they led Rangers 2-0. A firm response against the perfect opposition to a question posed by Hearts. Barry Robson had steered the side into third, a five-point lead, but it had been whittled back to two, one if you compare goal difference, after the Tynecastle Park side's 6-1 thrashing of Ross County on Saturday. How would they deal being in front but with a wee bit of pressure being applied ahead of the split and a five-game race to the finish? Very well, the answer.
The five-point lead has been restored. Third, having been both in their own and Hearts' hands pre-match, is now solely in Aberdeen’s. Realistically they perhaps only need two wins from five games. Six points to get them to 59. To allow them to go on the “European tour” they do desperately want. The type of European tour they craved so much under Derek McInnes and latterly Stephen Glass when they qualified for continental football eight seasons in a row. Back then, Scotland didn’t have the access it has now. Hearts took advantage this season with last year's third-place finish and group stage football. Aberdeen left to work out how this had happened. Now, barring a collapse, they are about to get a bit of the action. Eight games and the estimated £5million of revenue.
This success under Robson is built on strong foundations. Go back to December. A time when it started to all go wrong for Jim Goodwin. Leading Rangers 2-1 in the 94th minute at Pittodrie. They contrived to lose 3-2. This time around there was no fear or panic, certainly not visibly, when they got ahead through Liam Scales cross which sailed over a helplessly backtracking Allan McGregor after robbing Alfredo Morelos of the ball. A no-nonsense back line which no longer ships the type of goal and the number of goals the defence did before the start of February. Legs, energy, aggressiveness, passion. A ‘we shall not concede’ steadfast with that sprinkling of stardust and quality in the final third, Leighton Clarkson delivering one of the passes of the season onto the head of Bojan Miovski, taking advantage of Borna Barisic’s inability to defend the back post, to double the lead. Cue wild scenes.
Ball not special
“Young players coming through think it’s all about the ball,” Robson told the Mail on Sunday in the lead up to the game having spent time with Atletico Madrid. “But the game is 95 minutes and you only spend three on the ball if you’re lucky. So you have another 92 minutes to deal with. That’s where the best teams are at their best.”
In the first half the Dons had 21 per cent possession. They completed just 45 passes. Earn the right to play. Earn the right to score. Earn the right to succeed. It may well be the mantra under Robson. The ball is not this prized possession you must hold onto and protect that many would have you believe. It is a means to an end. Have it? Get it forward and put the other team under pressure.
That's what Rangers and Michael Beale are. Next weekend's trip to Hampden Park to face rivals Celtic is by far their biggest game of the season. Lose and the manager, despite having dropped points to one team outside of their city rivals since replacing Giovanni van Bronckhorst, is so far behind the eight-ball going into next season that he would require the world’s biggest rest to be able to play.
Rangers player concern
No two players sum up the current Rangers side more than Fashion Sakala and Ben Davies. Good players with their qualities. But good enough for Rangers and where they want to get to? Where they think they should be? No. Why, because they lack that killer instinct. When Sakala went through on goal early on, moments after Morelos had a shot cleared off the line, few would have been confident he would score. He hit a weak shot straight at the increasingly impressive Kelle Roos. Up the other end of the pitch Davies exudes the nervousness of someone who has just passed their driving test and is holding up traffic in his Fiat 500 complete with Green P slapped on the bonnet. Early on he sliced a clearance behind him. He allowed himself to be bullied by Bojan Miovski, not even competing for a header which he should have. He passed the ball straight to Ylber Ramadani who had a shot saved. They were just two of a number of players who failed to reach the levels needed. The levels expected. John Souttar was one of few to stand up and be counted as he kept Duk under wraps.
When the team is so wasteful despite some nice passes of play in the final third and so indecisive and laid back in the defensive third, results like these should really happen more often. What will hurt Beale is the reaction to going behind, then losing another. Todd Cantwell’s pass out the park, Rabbi Matondo’s shot wide summing it up. Focus is all on Sunday and Hampden and Celtic. Again.
This was Aberdeen’s day. And it is shaping up to be their season, despite what has all gone before. Surely Robson must get the job on a permanent basis now.
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