While last season was certainly a return to form for Aberdeen, inspired by manager Derek McInnes to their highest league finish in seven years and a first cup win in eighteen, this season has gone to show that the Dandy Dons’ revival is more than just a flash in the pan, but the start of a new era.
Another milestone in their revival could come on Saturday as Aberdeen take on their New Firm rivals Dundee United in a League Cup semi-final clash. A second cup final appearance in a row would be an impeccable achievement for the club and could set the Dons up for another glorious silverware-winning season.
Last year the Dons were Scotland’s best cup side, triumphing in the League Cup and being beaten by eventual winners St Johnstone in the Scottish Cup. An impressive fact, and one that has gone largely unnoticed amongst the bigger story of Scotland’s sleeping giant reawakening, was that Aberdeen won their first piece of silverware in twenty years without conceding a single goal in the entire competition in normal or extra-time. They may well have done the same in the Scottish Cup if it wasn’t for an early Anthony Stoke strike in the last 16 tie at Celtic Park and the two Stevie May strikes that sent them crashing out of the competition. Aberdeen play a cold and calculating cup game, and they’ve had great success with it.
Aberdeen have used that strategy and improved even further since the start of the season. They are currently unbeaten in their last ten league matches, with the first eight of those results being wins. The only blotches on their copybook since mid-October have been a defeat at home to Celtic and an early exit in the Scottish Cup at the hands of Dundee and. The Dons are only three points behind league leaders Celtic (who also have a game in hand), and although the odds are still stacked heavily against them, the talk of another title can be heard around the Granite City. These are great times indeed for the club.
It’s clear to see then that Derek McInnes’ Aberdeen has been built on a rock solid defence that keeps teams at bay. That’s why the side managed to go over two months without conceding a league goal, a run that ended with a thrilling 3-3 draw at Pittodrie against Dundee a fortnight ago. Despite his critics over the years, Jamie Langfield has turned out many solid performances so far this year. The defence, anchored by Mark Reynolds and Ash Taylor, has managed to be disciplined and limited other teams’ chances. Teams find it very hard to get anything from matches against Aberdeen because they aren’t clinical enough to make use of the few opportunities thrown to them.
At the front, Adam Rooney leads the line and has scored ten goals already this season, making him the league’s fourth top goalscorer. But Aberdeen aren’t as prolific as their opponents on Saturday, and sometimes find it tough to get the ball in the back of the net despite having the lion’s share of the possession. To their credit, a steely resolve has emerged in the team, one that has embodied champions in seasons gone by, where the Dons manage to snatch a goal in the dying minutes of the game to fashion a result. Ryan Jack’s stoppage time equaliser against Dundee and Cammy Smith’s late game-clincher on New Year’s Day against St Johnstone is proof enough that in the end Aberdeen will find a way. This sort of mentality is something that will undoubtedly help Aberdeen in the semi-final whether it is towards the end of the 90 minutes or the end of extra-time.
The intriguing part about Saturday’s game is that Dundee United seem to be the team in Scotland most capable of finding the gaps in Aberdeen’s defences and exploiting them. United thrashed Aberdeen 3-0 in the season opener at Pittodrie, who had battled in vain against Real Sociedad earlier in the week to keep their Europa League qualification dreams alive, and that performance has set an exemplar for how to beat the Dons. Aberdeen couldn’t prove a match for the strong United counter-attacks and suffered the consequences. The fatigue on show that day plagued the Dons’ first few games and the side dropped as low as 8th in the table in August, prompting questions over whether Aberdeen were really a force to be reckoned with once more. But Aberdeen have stood up to the test of the Terrors since then. The last meeting between the sides was in December, midway through Aberdeen’s current unbeaten run, as a Rooney brace helped them to a comfortable win. Against the most prolific scorers in the league, Aberdeen managed to limit United to 42% of possession which meant that their creative attacking players couldn’t create any real goal threat. It is this cancelling out of Dundee United that Aberdeen will need to focus on when they play on Saturday.
If Aberdeen can play the way they did at Tannadice earlier in the year on Saturday then the Dons will be returning to Hampden in March against the winner of the Old Firm clash. However, the last few weeks haven’t seen the same flair in the side as they had then, with a sluggish start against St Johnstone on Friday night showing the signs of fatigue once again that such a good run of form inevitably brings. Ash Taylor, who has been excellent in defence this season, will be out of Saturday’s game as he recovers from knee surgery and perhaps his presence will be missed. David Goodwillie hasn’t quite hit the sort of potent form that manager McInnes will have hoped from him when he was snapped up in the summer. Indeed, apart from Rooney, no Aberdeen player has scored more than five goals this season. These little problems have the potential to add up for Aberdeen, but they’ll be hoping that they don’t show on Saturday. If Dundee United turn up and manage to find their shooting boots it could be a tough afternoon for the Dons in their current state.
Reaching cup finals is never a novelty that wears off, especially for a club that has felt so deserving and been as unrewarded as Aberdeen have. The league title this year might be just beyond their grasp, although the hope remains alive for now, but the chance of defending their League Cup crown is definitely a more than achievable and would prove that Aberdeen are truly in the ascendancy. Dundee United are no small hurdle in their way, but if the Arabs can be defeated on Saturday then the Dons can once again dream of another trophy in the cabinet and another big step towards becoming a true power of the Scottish game again.