Aberdeen 0-0 Hibs: Visitors rue missed penalty in stalemate

The margins are so slim. With only two games remaining any one of three teams could still finish in second place.

Efe Ambrose and Niall McGinn battle for the ball at Pittodrie. Picture: SNS Group

Any one of the three could yet miss out on Europe, which is something none of them wish to countenance after chucking so much at this season.

The arrival of Steven Gerrard has been hailed as a shot in the arm for the Scottish game but while Rangers may feel in need of a fillip, the argument could be made that the rest of the league is in rude health.

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The ongoing scrap for the title of best of the rest ensured that competitive standards have not slipped. This was the perfect case in point, as both sides went full out to try to gain the win but neither willing to concede defeat.

Far from the usual end-of-season fare the two teams served up a pulsating battle of wills.

Aberdeen coming into it on the back of four wins but Hibs are unbeaten in 11, including wins over champions Celtic and Kilmarnock in the past two outings.

While Aberdeen started the day in prime position in the chase for second spot and ended it still one point ahead of Rangers and three in front of Hibs, they know that the job remains far from done, with final games against Rangers and Celtic still to come.

But they did give themselves some breathing space by holding Hibs at bay.

It could have been different if Joe Lewis had not stepped up to thwart Jamie Maclaren when the Australian striker had the opportunity to open the scoring from the penalty spot within the first five minutes.

The visitors had started with a real surge, determined to get their hosts on to the back foot straight away and as they pressed into the box, Mark Reynolds barged into the back of the World Cup hopeful. It gave the guests the ideal opportunity to take the lead but Maclaren will have nightmares about the weak spot-kick, which Lewis dived to save.

His mindset will not have been helped when shortly afterwards he then made a hash of converting a free header from close range.

That was in the 23rd minute and by then the punters were already struggling to catch their breath as the play raged from one end of the pitch to the other.

In the last meeting here Aberdeen, who have ended the past four seasons in second place, schooled their guests from Leith on the standards they would need to meet on a consistent basis if they were to overthrow them. But, in their first season back in the top flight, Neil Lennon’s men proved themselves quick learners and got their revenge at Easter Road, in a match they dominated.

But this was a more equal affair as both teams matched each other for energy and desire. But it was a game that sometimes needed a pause, veering into the realms of frenzy at times, as they struggled to find the breathing space to add guile to the gusto.

While Aberdeen tried to snuff out the creative force of Scott Allan, they had to do so without the suspended Kenny McLean, while Hibs started the second successive match without Dylan McGeouch.

Every time possession was turned over, it sparked a charge upfield, with Gary Mackay-Steven and Niall McGinn proving Aberdeen’s main conduits as everything became snarled up in the middle of the park. A combative and physical encounter, with everyone showing a willingness to fly into tackles, it was one that also threatened to boil over every so often.

No more so than when John McGinn stepped in to halt another Mackay-Steven breakaway and sent the winger into the dugout. It was that kind of day. One of no messing.

If Neil Lennon’s men felt they had bossed the first half, they were faced with a tougher task in the second. Aberdeen had come close to gaining the breakthrough just before the interval when a Steven Whittaker nudge was penalised about 25 yards from goal and Niall McGinn stepped up with a scorching free-kick that looked to have beaten Ofir Marciano but was halted only by the bar.

Such was the energy expended in the first 45 minutes, it was no surprise that the levels dropped after the break. Both managers made personnel changes in the hope of finding that extra little spark but in the end all that was stoked up was the race for second, with Rangers winning at Ibrox and ensuring things remain wide open.