Aberdeen seized the initiative in the battle for second place in the Scottish Premiership last night with a routine victory over listless Hearts.
First-half goals from Anthony O’Connor and Gary Mackay-Steven proved enough to take Derek McInnes’s team three points clear of Rangers, who visit Celtic tomorrow, and six clear of on-form Hibs, who visit Pittodrie next weekend. For sixth-place Hearts, it was an eighth away game in succession without victory. The summer can’t come quickly enough for Craig Levein’s team.
Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes made three changes to the side that won at Kilmarnock last weekend, with Mark Reynolds, Greg Stewart and Ryan Christie making way for Niall McGinn, Mackay-Steven and Sam Cosgrove, who was deemed a surprise starter after an underwhelming beginning to his stint at Pittodrie. Top scorer Adam Rooney, meanwhile, again started on the bench. Hearts made two changes to the team that had performed meekly in defeat away to Rangers last Sunday as teenage pair Lewis Moore and Euan Henderson replaced Marcus Godinho and Danny Amankwaa.
The Dons, seeking their first win over Hearts this season after failing to score in the three previous meetings, were first to threaten when Graeme Shinnie, playing at left-back instead of in his usual central-midfield berth, saw a powerful strike from 25 yards out beaten away by Jon McLaughlin in the fourth minute. That early effort aside, the visitors generally kept their hosts at arm’s length in the first 20 minutes, with most of the game played in the midfield area and neither side able to generate any rhythm. During this period, it was notable that O’Connor, who had criticised the Aberdeen support on social media following the Scottish Cup semi-final defeat by Motherwell a fortnight ago, was being jeered by a section of the home crowd whenever he touched the ball. The Irishman soon put an end to this sense of mild awkwardness with a match-altering intervention in the 21st minute. Niall McGinn swung over a corner from the right, Cosgrove headed it down and O’Connor pounced to fire past McLaughlin from six yards out.
The goal served to knock the stuffing out of Hearts, and the hosts almost doubled their lead two minutes later when Cosgrove saw his header from a Stevie May free kick well saved by McLaughlin. Another dangerous set-piece delivery from May on the half hour caused more problems in the visitors’ penalty area, but Shay Logan was unable to get enough on his back-post header to direct it on target. Hearts, who had taken Aberdeen apart at Tynecastle just three weeks earlier, were once again being afflicted by the travel sickness that has plagued their season, with Levein’s team unable to impose themselves and chronically lacking a threat in the final third. For the 460 supporters who journeyed north from the Capital, grim away performances like this have become painfully familiar. Given their renowned difficulty whenever they venture outside Gorgie, nobody of a Hearts persuasion would have fancied them to get back into the game after Mackay-Steven ran on to a through ball from McLean and calmly slotted Aberdeen’s second goal beyond the exposed McLaughlin from just inside the box in the 36th minute.
Thereafter the hosts were able to manage the game in an effective manner and rarely looked like letting the limp visitors back into it. Mackay-Steven fizzed a powerful long-range shot just past early in the second half, Cosgrove then saw a header tipped away by McLaughlin and Dominic Ball rasped a shot just over as the Dons hunted a third. Long before the end, the Hearts fans were mocking their own team with disparaging songs. They were almost given some reason for hope in the 78th minute when Kyle Lafferty fired just wide from a Michael Smith cutback in what counted as their first clear chance of the night. The same player then rasped a half volley well wide after getting in behind moments later. Substitute Rooney saw a late header pushed away by McLaughlin, but it mattered little as Aberdeen climbed back into second place with three matches to play and optimism tentatively restored following their recent Scottish Cup disappointment.
Aberdeen: Lewis, Logan, O’Connor, McKenna, Shinnie, Mackay-Steven, Ball, McLean, McGinn (Considine 83), May (Christie 76), Cosgrove. Subs not used: Woodman, Arnason, Reynolds, Stewart, Rooney.
Hearts: McLaughlin, Souttar, Hughes, Berra, Randall (Irving 73), Smith, Cowie (McDonald 83), Moore, Henderson (Cochrane 58), Naismith, Lafferty. Subs not used: Hamilton, Amankwaa, Callachan, Hamilton.
Ref: Andrew Dallas