Fresh from saving Aberdeen’s skin all the way across in Asia, Kenny McLean again prospered in more familiar territory where his late winner gave Aberdeen victory in their opening-day domestic joust with Dundee United.
Scorers: Aberdeen - McLean (82)
With just seven minutes left of a hard-fought contest, McLean’s stooped header found a way past Dundee United’s debutant goalkeeper, Luis Zwick, to give Derek McInnes’s men a flier as they set their sights on improving on last season when they finished runners-up to champions Celtic.
This was McLean at his proverbial best, following on from his crucial second-half strike in Thursday night’s qualifying tie away to Kairat Almaty, which handed the Dons a decent chance of making the play-off stage after initially trailing 2-0 in far-flung Asia, which required an 8,000 mile-plus round trip to Kazakhstan simply to fulfil the tie.
For United, there was no repeat of last season’s thumping 3-0 win in the corresponding fixture at Pittodrie, but things could have been different had Dutchman Mario Bilate buried what looked like a sitter on the verge of half-time, only for new Aberdeen goalkeeper Danny Ward to foil him with a reflex stop.
Aberdeen made changes to add fresh legs, with Willo Flood, Adam Rooney, Cammy Smith and Kenny McLean all coming in from the start.
United, for their part, gave youth its chance as their new-look back four featured summer signings Coll Donaldson, 20, and Mark Durnan, 22, at the heart of their defence, while Australian international Ryan McGowan skippered the side and recent Dutch arrival Rodney Sneijder settled for a place on the bench.
After just a couple of minutes, United had a brief glimpse of goal when Blair Spittal’s corner was met by Durnan, but he hacked his first-time effort wide of on-loan Liverpool ’keeper Danny Ward’s left-hand post.
Chris Erskine, their reborn midfielder, looked in the mood and he cut in from the left in 14 minutes, before unleashing a powerful shot which Ward parried before Ash Taylor swept the rebound away.
Things were beginning to pick up and, midway through the first half, Aberdeen’s Cammy Smith went on a solo run. The youngster sliced through opposition territory with one of his trademark surging runs and finished off with a left-foot shot, forcing Zwick to gather at the second attempt after initially fumbling the effort.
Soon after, Johnny Hayes ran down the left and crossed for Adam Rooney in the middle but former Queen of the South defender Durnan showed he had his wits about him to handle the step up from the Championship as he quickly got across to turn the ball out for a corner.
Aberdeen went on to enjoy a period in the ascendancy from then on but found the home defence tough to break down, as illustrated when Hayes combined with Shinnie to send McLean clear down the left, only for Durnan to again intercept and foil their efforts with Rooney lurking with intent inside the box.
Shortly after, Donaldson became the first player to be booked by Kevin Clancy, the referee, for a lunge on Smith who was preparing to advance into the final third, before Andy Considine picked up a yellow card for an off-the-ball foul on Charlie Telfer.
But, on 44 minutes, Bilate ought to have put United ahead. The Dutchman profited from Paul Quinn failing to clear his lines but, one-on-one with Ward, Bilate’s left-foot shot was saved as Ward stood his ground. It was to prove Bilate’s last involvement as he was replaced at the start of the second half by another summer recruit, Darko Bodul.
But it was the visitors who remained slightly on top, although still lacking that cutting edge to make their advantage count.
Hayes was sent scampering down the left with a weighted pass by McLean which allowed them to get in behind the home defence.
But despite Irishman Hayes’ best efforts to do some damage, his final cross could only hit the side-netting.
United gave substitute Simon Murray his first league start since signing from Arbroath as he replaced Telfer on the hour mark, while Aberdeen responded by sending on Niall McGinn for Smith.
Durnan then popped up at the other end of the field to connect with Spittal’s free-kick, forcing Ward to stretch and push his effort wide.
Sneijder came on to a rapturous reception in 73 minutes, replacing John Rankin, although Aberdeen took the lead four minutes later. Shay Logan’s cross into the box drew Zwick off his line and he punched straight into the path of Andy Considine but, just as the Dons defender looked set to capitalise, his shot was swept off the line by McGowan.
However, McLean headed the Dons in front in 83 minutes. David Goodwillies’s cross was cutely flicked on by the former St Mirren midfielder whose looping header caught out Zwick and dipped just in time to nestle in at the far post.
Aberdeen will now try to overcome Kairat in Thursday night’s return leg and, with this will-to-win on show, anything is possible in front of a packed Pittodrie.
Dundee United: Zwick, McGowan, Durnan, Donaldson, Dixon, Souttar, Rankin (Sneijder 72), Erskine, Telfer (Murray 62), Spittal, Bilate (Bodul 46). Subs not used: Dillon, Muirhead, McCallum, Fraser.
Aberdeen: Ward,Quinn,Considine (Jack 78), Taylor, Logan, Flood, Smith (McGinn 2), Shinnie, Hayes (Goodwillie 68), McLean, Rooney. Subs not used: Robson,Pawlett,Brown, Wright.