NO venue in Scotland is more daunting than Pittodrie right now. Aberdeen’s form is as hot as the colour of their famous red kit, sitting second in the Scottish Premiership with four wins and no goals conceded in their last four fixtures. To illustrate this imperious standing, the last goal they lost at home was on August 17.
The resurgence under Derek McInnes has prompted whispers of a possible return to the 1980s halcyon days of Sir Alex Ferguson, albeit prematurely. Aberdeen’s current manager would never dream of making such a comparison, however there is no denying he is the man of the moment in the north east. Ferguson himself only yesterday backed McInnes to end the club’s 18-year wait for silverware.
Timing, then, has not been kind to Hearts in this instance. They are next up at fortress Pittodrie just days after Patrick Thistle capitulated there in a 4-0 reverse. Hearts’ impoverished state sees them at the opposite end of the momentum spectrum with seven defeats in their last eight league outings.
Everything points to a home win on Saturday, although part of McInnes’ make-up is to avoid complacency at all costs. He has taken just seven months to catapult Aberdeen to a new level following Craig Brown’s retirement and is eager that the solid groundwork be built upon. Evidence of Hearts’ danger can be found in the teams’ last meeting at Tynecastle in August – a 2-1 win for the hosts secured by Jordan McGhee’s late header. That remains Hearts’ last victory in the league.
“We have to respect the opposition, of course,” said McInnes. “Hearts, like every other team, have their strengths and weaknesses. We will try and work to our strengths and try to highlight areas where we can maybe get a bit of success. Hearts are tough opponents and we only need to look at the last game to see that. Any defeat you take sorely but the manner in which we defended the late goal [at Tynecastle] bothered us. It should have been a game where we were talking about missed opportunities costing us a win as I thought we created the best chances by far. On another day we would win but you have to take your chances in any game. You still need to defend to the death and defend properly. We didn’t defend a set-piece properly and we didn’t take our chances.
“I wasn’t too disappointed with the team’s actual performance. I thought we were the better team on the day but you don’t always get what you deserve. In both penalty boxes we were a bit negligent and, when that’s the case, sometimes you don’t get what you want.
“We need to make sure we bring a level of performance that helps us win the game this time. Regardless of whether the opposition are doing well or struggling, I’m really only concerned with what we do. That’s no disrespect to Hearts at all. I said last time that Hearts is a club which has to be admired.
“Their support has to be admired for the solidarity they’ve shown. That support is going to be so important to the team this season.”
The same could be said for the Aberdonian public. Pittodrie’s average attendance last season was 9350, but this season so far that has risen to 12,691. As a result of the McInnes effect, supporters are gradually returning to a ground which was renowned for being hostile and intimidating for so many years.
Midfield signings like Willo Flood and Barry Robson are becoming more influential after recovering from injury. Michael Hector is a solid and dependable centre-back on loan from Reading, while Calvin Zola is finding his scoring touch to complement Niall McGinn and Jonny Hayes. All four are McInnes’ recruits.
“I think we’ve worked hard to get these results in the last few games and the confidence it’s given us is important,” said the manager. “We’re well aware that we’ve been on decent form before this season and then run into one or two disappointing results. We need to keep working hard to keep churning out those results. There is a good spirit between the players and the whole squad has contributed. We went through a spell of horrendous injuries there, which might have affected our results, but it hasn’t actually had too much bearing. We’ve got key players back in the last couple of weeks and that has helped. We’ve had a lot of late goals in games and finished really strong with some late winners. That indicates decent fitness levels among the players. I’m delighted that, even when a game is finely balanced, we’re still going for that win. It’s a good mentality to try to go and win every game.”
Clean sheets breed confidence as much as scoring goals. Jamie Langfield is a goalkeeper high on confidence at the moment given his net has not been bulged in over a month. Hearts will have a task on their hands trying to alter that statistic this weekend. “At home, we’ve been very good defensively,” stressed McInnes. “Kilmarnock scored one and Celtic scored two against us at Pittodrie early in the season. That’s been it. We have some decent experience in the back line but there’s also a good amount of work being done in front of the back four and goalkeeper to prevent opponents getting chances.
“If we’re going to continue this run and show more consistency then that’s something we have to maintain. You need to be difficult to play against. Clean sheets always give you the opportunity to win games.
“We have a lot of youngsters in the team as well as some experience. I think this team is much younger than maybe Aberdeen teams have been in the past wee while. We have a good blend. It’s key for any team to have good experience in the right areas and I think we’re fortunate enough to have that.”