TITLE pretenders? Or just plain, fantastical pretence?
Scorers: Aberdeen - Pawlett (12)
Derek McInnes, the Aberdeen manager, had challenged his players pre-match to prove they could stay on the coat-tails of stuttering Celtic after the champions’ latest leakage of points.
Well yesterday, brutal though it was as a spectacle, the Dons’ dressing room rallied to the demand. Peter Pawlett’s early strike proved the killer blow to shade a ferocious, if sometimes grim battle of wills against Inverness Caledonian Thistle and earn a fifth victory in a row without concession of a goal.
The latest victory moved McInnes’s relentless winners to within two points of the champions and they can now go top on New Year’s Day, albeit perhaps only for a couple of hours, if they beat St Johnstone at home.
For unlucky Inverness, it was a third consecutive defeat – the worst club run in almost four years – but they remain within a few points of European places.
McInnes afterwards vowed to leave talk of a title challenge to others after the game but there is a resilience about the Dons that augurs well.
“The season becomes a 20-game season now. I’ve said that to the players,” he said. “It is no longer 38 games and we feel we have a lot of confidence about us, the momentum I’ve spoken about.
“But for us – and we know it is somebody else’s job to allude to something better than what we’re doing at the minute – it’s just a professional approach. The next challenge is ahead of us. The slap in the face is always around the corner. We have to recognise that, while we’re enjoying the run we’re on, it’s hard work and a measured approach that’s helping us get results.
“We showed real resolve when it was needed. The fundamental was how hard we worked for the result, backed by a brilliant support.
“We’re really lucky at the club to have such an honest group of boys who are motivated in their work and know who they are representing.”
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Given the rewards on offer, three points looked as enticing as Santa’s Christmas Eve mince pie and malt to the Aberdeen fans filing expectantly along the A96. They had hungrily snapped up tickets for the trip – all 3,052 available – packing out the south stand and spilling into the a main stand wing, as well as Caley Thistle’s erstwhile ‘singing section’.
With a decent home contingent also braving the chill air, the hosts had their biggest home crowd of the season – including Celtic’s visit – and largest for over two years.
The scene was set for a Christmas cracker and there was an instant injection of drama as Mark Reynolds’ slack pass posed problems and the defender unceremoniously felled Ryan Christie, within the opening minute.
Adam Rooney mounted the Dons first attack three minutes later, cutting the ball inside to the edge of the box where Ryan Jack had clear sight of goal. The midfielder’s dig was woeful.
Young Christie was taken out again by Ryan Jack on the turn, but Aberdeen were in front after just 12 minutes.
There was a touch of calamity about it as Josh Meekings and Carl Tremarco leapt for the same cross ball – and both missed it. The ball spun to Niall McGinn on the right and he cut it back low to Pawlett. The striker’s fifth goal of the season was a sweetly executed, first-time stab of the boot into the top of the net from 14 yards.
From there, the Dons threatened occasionally on the counter but Inverness took the initiative through most of the rest of the half.
Aberdeen goalkeeper Scott Brown spilled a Christie chip into his penalty area after 23 minutes, under pressure from Billy Mckay, but the danger was cleared for a corner that saw Gary Warren testing the Dons’ shotstopper from distance. The Highlanders then had a penalty shout turned down as Ashton Taylor seemed to hold onto Josh Meekings as they crashed to earth. Referee Calum Murray was disinterested.
And the lively McKay cut inside marker Murray after 34 minutes, turning to curl a tight-angled attempt just wide of the far post from the left side of the six-yard box.
But the chance of the half came right on half-time as Shinnie’s ferocious, rising left foot strike from outside the box was superbly parried away by keeper Brown as he leapt sharply to his left. Christie quickly closed in on the rebound, but prodded the ball wide.
Jonny Hayes’ air swipe on a low David Goodwillie cross amounted to a real missed opportunity for the Dons as the second half opened. But it became a battle of wills, with scarce goalmouth action, and the hosts decidedly more subdued.
Gary Warren’s late nick on Rooney just outside the box after 63 minutes had Niall McGinn swerving a free-kick just over the bar.
Ten minutes later, Tansey’s venomous free-kick stung the gloves of keeper Brown but he deserved great credit as he diverted the attempt for a corner that came to nothing for the hosts.
There were Dons’ appeals for handball as Warren blocked a Rooney attempt, but again the referee shook his head.
But it was Caley Thistle who were clutching their heads in disbelief ten minutes from time. Another Tansey free-kick was met unconvincingly by Brown and Billy Mckay, from close in, turned the ball agonisingly against the crossbar and away.
John Hughes, the Inverness manager, rued his team’s misfortune. He said: “I think we did enough to take something out of the match, but football is like that. If you give a team a goal of a start it’s always going to be an uphill battle.
“But in terms of the way we went about our business I was very pleased. You can see lady luck has just deserted us right at this moment in time, but I cannot complain about the effort or commitment.
“And in the second half we had Aberdeen on the back foot. I’ve seen Aberdeen a few times, and I’ve seen them when they’ve been very good, and free-flowing.
Inverness CT: Brill, Raven, Warren, Meekings, Tremarco, Tansey, Shinnie, Watkins, Christie, Doran (Sekajja 86), McKay. Subs not used: Esson, Vincent, Ross, Devine, Horner, Williams.
Aberdeen: Brown, Murray, Taylor, Reynolds, Considine, McGinn, Jack, Pawlett, Hayes, Goodwillie (Smith 85), Rooney. Subs not used: Langfield, Monakana, Robson, Shankland, Rose, Gibbons.
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