I said after the announcement of the SPL split which pitted Aberdeen against Rangers at Pittodrie on the last day that I hoped the Dons would still have something to play for in the game.
I did of course mean that Champions League qualification could still be a possibility and that the Rangers match would be a showdown between the two clubs to see who would be Scotland’s second representative in the competition.
Had Walter Smith not joined Rangers when he did, it is not presumptuous to imagine that Rangers under their form and under the control of Paul Le Guen would not have won the vital matches against Celtic, Hearts and of course the 3-0 mauling they gave the Dons; matches which up until their defeat to Kilmarnock at the weekend had Walter Smith’s Rangers undefeated in the SPL.
So it’s a case of careful what you wish for as Aberdeen head into this final match against their greatest rivals needing a win for UEFA Cup qualification when all had thought entry to that tournament would be confirmed long ago.
Aberdeen’s beasting at Ibrox proved to be the end of their hopes of Champions League football next season and they maybe took their eye off the amazing results Hearts were achieving below them, Jimmy Calderwood had publicly written them off certainly as he felt the loss of Pressley and Hartley would be too detrimental to the Tynecastle clubs season.
The opposite is in fact true. Under a new management team, Hearts have gone on a very consistent run which has seen them beat Hibs and Celtic since the split, something the Dons failed to do and the gap has narrowed to only, one surpass able but significant point.
After hearing the Hearts result on Saturday where they beat city rivals Hibs 2-0, Aberdeen knew the repercussions of dropping points at Parkhead and Jimmy clearly felt, having watched the Champions lose their last two league matches, that his team were more than capable of getting the win that would secure Euro football for the first time in five years.
He sent out a team that could only be delegated for attack duties with the spearhead of Mackie, Miller and Lovell all desperate to do the damage in a match where the majority of supporters were only interested in saying goodbye to Neil Lennon, unconcerned about Aberdeen’s Euro plight.
Ex-Don Gordon Strachan certainly wasn’t as he and his assistant’s fielded what has to be regarded as his strongest team with Boruc, Lennon, Nakamura, Naylor, Hartley and Vennegoor of Hesselink all starting, no doubt with a view to resting them next week and keeping them fresh for the Scottish Cup final the week after. I doubt that there will be very many changes for Celtic’s Cup Final team from the one that faced Aberdeen on Saturday.
Bad luck then for the Dons as these Celtic players had to show that they were deserving of a Cup Final jersey and no quarter could be given.
The game was dominated by Celtic and their close, un-probing passing game which did little to stimulate the fans but Aberdeen’s determination and fight kept the tempo up.
oth teams had had no real clear attempts by the time the first goal went in.
An scarily unmarked Celtic player hit a decent shot from the edge of the box and Jamie Langfield should have done better than to pass the ball straight to Hesselink’s feet with his overzealous block as it’s not hard to imagine what a striker in the Dutch national team does from six yards.
The Dons were defiant though and played as they had been with players chasing down Celtic and looking for openings. They got one five minutes before half time when Chris Clark ran at the Celtic defence and slipped the ball into Steve Lovell who had a shooting opportunity before John Kennedy hauled him back from about 14 yards.
It was an obvious penalty and the young Celtic defender later admitted he was just pleased to stay on the park but Aberdeen’s problem was that they didn’t have a natural choice player to take the kick with Barry Nicholson being banned for celebrating.
Ex-Celt Jamie Smith stepped up and although he looked confident enough and got decent contact, his mid-height effort was excellently stopped by the magnificent Boruc as he dived to his left.
Boruc was to be beaten shortly after however when Darren Mackie bravely charged down a fifty-fifty and it broke kindly for the Dons. Mackie got back to his feet and ran on for the pass into the box before slotting into the opposite corner than Smith had tried for.
1-1 at Half-Time.
Sadly Celtic wasted hardly any time in wiping Mackie’s fine strike out and Hesselink was again the assassin. A cute little ball played into him from the by line looked safe enough as Aberdeen had the full defence around him but he showed amazing awareness and vision as he flicked the ball with his right foot behind him and passed Langfield, as is his custom. The goal was very similar to Denis Law’s effort which relegated his beloved Manchester United when he played for rivals City.
2-1 down but with basically a full half to change it Aberdeen went pressing forwards and Lovell forced Boruc into some fine stops. Big Zander Diamond had a good match and could have capped it a super goal but his header smacked the bar.
The Dons created some excellent opportunities but it was not to be and Steve Lovell’s miss in 66 minutes will no doubt go down as one of the greatest misses of all time.
Jamie Smith had taken his man on at the edge of the box and swept a dangerous ball into the box. A bit of indecision by the unfamiliar Celtic backline allowed the ball to travel through untouched to Steve Lovell who was waiting alone and infront of an empty net. With Boruc stranded at the near post, Lovell hit the ball first time and lifted it over the goal. An astonishing miss, more so given the circumstances but Lovell admitted later that he was surprised the ball made it through and he could only stick out an unmeasured leg.
The shocking miss has spurred Lovell onto a goal-scoring performance against Rangers and he’s promised he’ll never squander a chance like that again.
If Aberdeen want to play Euro football next season he can’t afford to or if Lovell ever wants to kick a ball again in an important match as it truly was one of the worst misses ever caught on camera and will no doubt haunt him for his career.
The Dons players can hold their heads high as they look back on this match because they know they gave everything and just luck perhaps let them down. Some great performances were given by Jamie Smith, Zander Diamond and if Celtic need someone to replace Neil Lennon, Scott Severin should be the template as he showed Celtic’s departing captain what a holding midfield player should be doing as he won headers, tackles, made good passes and got involved with the forward play unlike Lennon who typically remained anonymous.
The good side of the match was that the Dons created quality chances against the country’s top team and were harshly done by to leave with nothing.
With regards to next week however, Aberdeen can look on the Brightside as a few little things could be in their favour.
Rangers won’t have 50,000 fans at Pittodrie next week but Aberdeen will have 20,000.
he Dons will have Barry Nicholson back from suspension, good news should a penalty kick be awarded their way.
angers have lost their unbeaten run under Walter Smith and with it that psychological edge that gives teams that extra spur as they try to defend it.
angers have nothing to play for, they’re season is over and Walter Smith is already clearing the deadwood.
ut the best news Aberdeen can take from this match is that Artur Boruc does not play for Rangers.
‘I don’t think I have ever come to Parkhead with a team and created so many chances and not won the game. There is no doubt we had the best chances. I have no idea who got man of the match but I would imagine that their keeper wasn’t far away. He made a great save from the penalty. I don’t think Jamie hit it badly, he hit it right in the corner with power but he is a big lad.’
‘It now all comes down to the last day and we know what we have to do. All credit to Hearts, they have pushed us all the way but I’m sure Stevie Frail would rather be in our shoes. They might think going to Kilmarnock is the easier game but Rugby Park is a very difficult place to go to. It might end up that both us will lose but we are not bothered how we get third place.’
Calderwood on Lovell
‘Steve has been the man who mattered for us against Rangers before and is capable of doing it again.
‘I’ve told him to just forget that miss, get his head up and keep getting in there on the end of chances in the next game.
‘Don’t forget he also got us the penalty and put in a tremendous shift.
‘He would normally have put away at least two of the chances he created but was also denied by a series of unbelievable saves. There is no point in harking back to what happened.
‘If Steve puts in the same effort against Rangers and we create the same amount of chances there is every chance he could end up a hero.’
Calderwood said: ‘We know what we’ve got to do and how difficult it is going to be, but we are also looking forward to it.
‘If we get into Europe it would make it a magical summer for everyone and that is our target’.