Aberdeen are already Scotland’s sole survivors in the Europa League. They will be doing well to keep it that way.
Derek McInnes’ side initially rode the wave of optimism felt at Pittodrie, opening the scoring after just 16 minutes through a sweet strike from Ryan Christie.
But Aberdeen could not prevent understandable sluggishness hampering their ambitions following a bright start. Stipo Markovic equalised with 20 minutes left with a goal every bit as artfully finished as Christie’s.
It’s the curse of the Scottish clubs forced to be propelled cold into such fixtures. At least the opposition had negotiated a couple of legs in the preceding round.
But Aberdeen will take a draw given how they fell away in the second half, clearly suffering from a lack of competitive match practice. Still, there was no shortage of enthusiasm at Pittodrie last night.
Although returning after a loan spell last season, Christie was one reason why the stadium was imbued with such good cheer in the opening half. As was new signing Gary Mackay-Steven, secured on the eve of the fixture, again from Celtic. Mackay-Steven could, perhaps should, have marked his first game with a goal before being replaced on the hour mark.
In light of the deft squad re-building by Derek McInnes, there was much to be enthusiastic about. No wonder a banner along the front of the south stand aimed a pointed barb at Rangers manager Pedro Caixinha, who posited Aberdeen’s recent status as nearest challengers to Celtic was coming to an end.
“The Cycle Continues Thank You Derek & Doc,” it read, acclaiming the decision of McInnes and assistant Tony Docherty to stay put despite Sunderland’s strong interest.
There was a very healthy crowd inside Pittodrie. A blot on the evening in addition to Siroki’s deflating equaliser, which was met with almost complete silence, were reports of fans queueing to get in long after kick-off.
The hope is they didn’t miss Christie’s opener. It was a stylish goal with which to greet the new season and had the distinction of being set up by Joe Lewis, whose quick thinking set Christie on his way.
The goalkeeper plucked a cross from the sky before smoothly transferring the ball to his foot and sending a pass deep into the Siroki half. But there was still work to do for Christie. He out-muscled his marker Josip Barisic before cutting back in towards the middle of the pitch.
Christie had an option to play in Mackay-Steven but instead chose to send a sweet left-foot towards goal. It was a wise decision because the ball evaded the diving Luka Boilbrk, an immense physical presence in the opposition goal, and curled inside the far post.
It was a delicious strike the watching Denis Law would have been proud to claim.
But Aberdeen had to be careful. The visitors were clearly no mugs. Luka Brgonja saw a shot flash wide from the edge of the six-yard box shortly afterwards.
The home side should have stretched their lead ten minutes before half-time. A perfectly measured pass from Graeme Shinnie invited Mackay-Steven to stretch his legs as he bore down on goal. He opted to go round the keeper and lost momentum, allowing Bernardo Matic to deflect the eventual shot wide.
But it was a glimpse of the danger Mackay-Steven can cause with his pace. He’ll get sharper with time.
Aberdeen might have paid for the failure to take the chance had Luka Menalo not glanced a header just wide from Dino Coric’s cross on the stroke of half-time.
The fans sought to rouse the players after the interval as tiredness crept into Aberdeen’s play. “Come on you Reds,” they chorused.
Ivan Krstanovic should have done better with a downward header from Coric’s cross on the hour mark.
The tiring Mackay-Steven was replaced by Nicky Maynard shortly afterwards to signal another debut, and a shift in formation to 4-4-2. Greg Stewart, signed on loan from Birmingham City, arrived with quarter of an hour left, replacing Kenny McLean.
But by this time Siroki had drawn level, Aberdeen paying the price for slack defending on their left. The ball reached Markovic, whose execution of a fizzing shot from the edge of the area into the bottom corner of Lewis’ net was aided by the absence of any defender closing him down.
Aberdeen’s changes – Myles Storey replaced Adam Rooney just prior to time added on – could not help inspire another breakthrough. Aberdeen head to Bosnia with still much to play for. But it will be their first achievement of a nascent season should they secure the result to see them progress.