It says a lot about this patter-packed Scottish Premiership season that the sporting rivalry between Aberdeen and Motherwell has slipped completely under the radar. Across five games they’ve landed a series of blows on each other, both literal and metaphorical. Both sides have taken their licks; forced to retreat to their corner and plan for the next round. Two wins apiece going into this one, ultimately it was Stephen Robinson’s men who delivered the devastating knockout.
Pugilistic analogies may straddle the line of cliche in football parlance, but there is little other way to describe a conflict such as this one. There have been tactical tweaks and interesting little wrinkles in each of the matches between the pair ever since the Steelmen whacked the Dons on their backside in the Betfred Cup clash at Fir Park.
In the end, though, this encounter was very much like that one, even bringing about the same scoreline. Aberdeen couldn’t deal with the physicality, work rate or sheer strength of the Motherwell front two and that proved to be the biggest difference between the sides.
If anything, the Lanarkshire club have managed to ratchet up the intimidation factor since Louis Moult stole the show back in late September. When the talisman departed down south, in came Curtis Main. The Fir Park faithful absolutely adored Moult. The way things are going, as unlikely as it seemed back in January, they may love his replacement even more.
While the 25-year-old netted the all-important first, it was the third that typified his career in Scotland thus far. Sure, it was a grave error by Kari Arnason (not his first of the afternoon), but it was Main’s determination to chase down the ball when there appeared very little on that enabled him to be in the right place to capitalise on the veteran’s miscontrol. Once he accelerated away from his opponent, he showed the type of composure which wasn’t a strength of his before moving to Scotland, but has fast become a facet of his game as he curled a perfect finish beyond Joe Lewis.
That strike, more than the other two, sent the Motherwell fans into raptures. There would be no more worrying; no chance that their side could bring them to the brink and then let it all fall away. Even the hundreds of Aberdeen fans trudging out knew. This one was over.
For all intents and purposes, the game was finished as soon as Ryan Bowman scuffed home one of the scrappiest goals you’re likely to see. In the build-up to that, just as the opener, the forward’s physicality caused problems for Arnason. In that particular instance, the 35-year-old can at least claim to have been tripped by his marker, as Bowman inadvertently clipped his heel before overpowering him with his upper body. But there can be little excuse for the manner in which he failed to get position on the striker in order to deal with a routine punt forward by Trevor Carson in the build-up to the opener.
Eleven days previous to this Hampden encounter the two sides had met in ML1, though the games were wildly different. If Aberdeen wish to look for excuses, they would be best served pointing to the absence of both Graeme Shinnie and Kenny McLean. Both players were instrumental in the 2-0 league victory, a match where Derek McInnes’ men controlled the first half and netted twice in three second-half minutes. Perhaps the performance drew McInnes into a false sense of security.
Instead of changing things up, as he is often fond of doing, the Dons boss stuck with the same, unusual 4-3-3 line-up. Again Stevie May operated on the left of the forward three, but unlike team-mate Greg Stewart, stationed on the other side of Adam Rooney, he rarely ventured out to the wing, leaving the attack with an imbalance. On the bigger pitch the narrower formation didn’t have the same stifling effect as it had. Without the aforementioned Shinnie and McLean to pick up pockets of space and funnel attacks, they failed to assert territorial dominance.
Motherwell, meanwhile, changed back from a 4-4-2 to their favoured 3-5-2. The midfield three of Allan Campbell, Liam Grimshaw and Andy Rose appeared a little on the nose, an obvious intent of industry over subtlety, but it nullified any potential threat from that area. Ryan Christie, for instance, was posted missing for most of the game as he failed to shake Rose as his shadow.
There were two brief flurries where the visitors looked a genuine threat. The first came after the introduction of Gary Mackay-Steven just before half-time. The winger’s direct running set up an opportunity for May to skew wide. Another chance came Rooney’s way shortly after Niall McGinn entered the fray on the hour. By then the damage had been done by Bowman and Main and further pain was inflicted on the pre-match favourites when the latter wrapped things up.
The boos which greeted the full-time whistle from the hardy Dons who remained lasted a few beats longer than your usual post-match cathartic release. Too many times they’ve seen their side fall on the big stage. And the manner of this one must have stung more than most.