Derek McInnes is convinced Aberdeen will overturn a 2-0 away-leg deficit for only the second time in the club’s 52-year European history, even though the competition’s current top scorer Sam Cosgrove misses the visit of Rijeka with a hamstring injury.
Experienced midfielder Craig Bryson and central defender Ash Taylor are also sidelined this evening, but it is the absence of someone who has scored 27 goals in his last 34 appearances that is the biggest setback.
Cosgrove’s six goals so far in the Europa League leave him one ahead of Rangers marksman Alfredo Morelos, Apollon Limassol’s Emilio Zelaya and Ivan Trickovski, a direct opponent in Cyprus next week if his AEK Larnaca side eliminate Gent and the Dons deliver the desired result at Pittodrie.
For that they need a repeat of one of those special nights under the lights at the old stadium during the Sir Alex Ferguson era when a Mark McGhee hat-trick overhauled Ujpest Dozsa’s advantage from the first leg in Hungary.
That kept their defence of the European Cup Winners’ Cup on track, and it was only halted by Porto in the semi-final. While the prize may be more modest now, their current manager will see making the final round of Europa League qualifying for the first time in six attempts as a significant progress.
What is certain is the need to be more of a threat than they were in last Sunday’s Premiership defeat away to St Mirren, when Curtis Main led the line in Cosgrove’s absence as one of a number of changes McInnes made after defeat in Croatia.
However, he believes even that experience will have a positive influence tonight as it gave several squad members much-needed game time and now it’s up to the players who are picked to repay the faith he has shown in them.
“Sam is out,” the Aberdeen manager revealed. “His scan was positive in that it wasn’t the worst-case scenario for us, but there was enough there to rule him out.
“He has improved over the last few days in terms of his general wellbeing, but the ability to sprint and jump just isn’t there at the moment.
“Of course he is a key player for us, but we have dealt with being without key players in the past. You put a squad together knowing everyone will have to play a part during the season and that’s what needs to happen.
“This a chance for whoever plays, but a lot of them haven’t had enough pre-season games. Since it started we have looked rusty but they will all be better from having the game [at Paisley].
“We have had a good couple of days since in terms of players resting down physically, although they have been in training and we had a good positive meeting and the players believe.
“I think 2-0 was harsh on us last week and I think the players believe that, but the harshness is the reality. It is 2-0 and we need to do something about it.”
Ideally McInnes is looking for the sort of performance that blew away Chikhura Sachkhere 5-0 at Pittodrie in the previous round, when the Georgian side couldn’t cope with Aberdeen’s pace, aggression and slick football. However, the manager is also acutely aware that his team are up against a higher calibre of opponent tonight.
The lack of an away goal leaves the Dons particularly vulnerable and McInnes knows from personal experience how dangerous Rijeka can be from their last visit to Pittodrie four years ago.
Aberdeen won the first leg 3-0 in Croatia on that occasion, but the visitors were 2-0 up in the return with just under half an hour to go before goals from Niall McGinn and Jonny Hayes clinched a 5-2 aggregate win.
That scare and a much less encouraging starting point is why McInnes admits the balance between defence and attack has to be more carefully calibrated if they are to be on a plane to either Belgium or Cyprus next midweek.
“We feel this tie is very much still alive,” he added. “We take comfort from the home performances so far – they have been very strong and we need something similar.
“You have to be aware of the consequence of chasing the result, because although we’re 2-0 down and they are in control of the tie, it’s still only half-time.
“We can’t give them any more of an initiative by conceding, so the first goal is hugely important. If we get a goal early enough then the complexion of the tie changes.
“Rijeka are a strong opponent, but we still believe we can get this tie going our way. We have to be calm, composed and measured in our work. It’s going to take quality in the final third to get through.”