A day that began with so much promise ended with Aberdeen being taught a harsh lesson in football’s fine margins, as their title challenge hangs by a thread.
Little over two hours after Celtic won in dramatic circumstances, Aberdeen suffered a catastrophic collapse that leaves them four points adrift of the reigning champions, having played a game more.
In another life, Aberdeen’s fans would be waking up today with their side top of the table. Having taken the lead against Motherwell, they were denied by a pair of outstanding stops from home goalkeeper Connor Ripley. They paid the price when the hosts netted twice in the space of as many minutes, the first of which came when Derek McInnes’ side looked in complete control of the contest. Then again, showing the nerve to hold on in such games, or pull three points out of nothing as Celtic did, is what separates champions from the rest.
“We were managing the game well, looked stronger and looked the most likely to get the second goal. We kept Motherwell’s front three at arm’s length, which we knew would be a challenge,” said McInnes, “but you need to deal with it for 90 minutes, not 73 minutes.”
The opening exchanges belonged to the visitors. Ryan Jack was the first to test Ripley with a low shot from the edge of the area before Simon Church went close with an effort on the turn that inched wide.
The best chance of the period came the way of Kenny McLean, who was completely unmarked when he met Jonny Hayes’ corner yet got his header all wrong, glancing it across the face of goal.
Motherwell settled into the match and gave Aberdeen some problems of their own. Louis Moult was unlucky to see his rifled shot, following a one-two with Scott McDonald, come crashing back off the post.
Just when it seemed the first period would end goalless, Aberdeen went ahead in controversial circumstances. The penalty itself was clear-cut. Kieran Kennedy upended Hayes after the winger burst into the box. However, the home side were incensed that a foul on Marvin Johnson had been missed in the build-up. Aberdeen also had reason to vent, feeling that Kennedy should have been sent off for denying a clear goalscoring opportunity. Neither were given and McLean stepped up for fire Aberdeen in front.
Motherwell almost let their sense of injustice get the better of them a moment later when Aberdeen broke on a three-on-two counter-attack. They were bailed out by the first of two superb stops from Ripley when he denied Niall McGinn.
His next moment of heroics came only six minutes before the equaliser, as he pushed away a McLean drive that had looked destined for the back of the net. From the resulting corner Church hooked an Andrew Considine header on to the crossbar.
Aberdeen were left to rue those missed opportunities when a manic two minutes turned this match on its head. Marvin Johnson, who almost missed out due to the flu virus that briefly threatened to postpone this game, cushioned Lionel Ainsworth’s deep ball back across goal. When Mark Reynolds and Moult both went for it and missed, McDonald followed up, looping a header up and over Scott Brown.
Then, just like that, the hosts went 2-1 up. Moult ran through alongside the covering Reynolds. The Aberdeen defender and goalkeeper both hesitated in dealing with the danger, allowing Moult a foot to the bouncing ball, which he lifted over a helpless Brown.
Whether Aberdeen bottled it is up for debate, though there’s no doubt they lost the mental battle in this contest when Barry Robson, having just came on as substitute, saw red for a vicious elbow on McDonald.
Motherwell then passed up a couple of excellent opportunities to seal it beyond doubt. First Ainsworth fired into the side netting after a poor touch took him away from goal, then substitute Wes Fletcher somehow failed to shoot past Brown from five yards out.