ALEX McLEISH didn’t make any changes to the side which had swept Hibs to the top of the SPL table, but French ace David Zitelli was included in the squad for the first time, the striker taking a seat on the bench.
The average age of the side fielded by Aberdeen boss Ebbe Skovdahl was only 22 with Darren Young the youngest Dons captain since Willie Miller.
And despite their youth they almost took the lead with only two minutes on the clock.
Hibs star Martin McIntosh was woefully short with a header back to Nick Colgan, allowing Darren Mackie to intercept although the Irish goalkeeper did well to push the young Aberdeen player wide. Mackie, however, was sharp enough to attempt a rising shot from an acute angle and only the head of skipper Franck Sauzee prevented the Dons taking the lead.
Hibs made the most of that escape by taking the lead with a controversial penalty after Dons defender Mark Perry was adjudged to have handled a shot from Mixu Paatelainen and to Aberdeen’s horror referee Mike McCurry hauled Perry aside to show him the red card with only three minutes on the clock. Russell Latapy, who had seen a spot-kick saved by Dundee’s Robert Douglas the previous week, was made to wait as Perry made the long walk to the tunnel at the opposite end of the ground. But the little midfielder was coolness personified as he stepped up to drill a low shot into the bottom right-hand corner of the net.
If the incident was clouded in controversy, the move which led up to it was worth a goal, Sauzee picking out Didier Agathe with a superb 60-yard pass, the Frenchman’s electrifying pace taking him beyond Kevin McNaughton before cutting the ball back for Paatelainen.
The big Finn and his team-mates were adamant, as, more importantly, was McCurry, that the ball had hit Perry’s hand although it looked more accidental than intentional and certainly not worthy of a sending off.
The home fans, naturally, were incensed, facing the following 87 minutes with only ten men. However, they were on their feet when an intelligent pass from Arild Stavrum gave Robbie Winters a sight of goal but the Dons striker pushed his shot across goal and wide.
Hibs might have increased their lead in the 14th minute when Agathe again left the Dons defence trailing but, with Paatelainen in space and screaming for the ball, he drilled an angled shot well wide of the target.
Gary Smith, who had been frozen out by Skovdahl almost a year previous, picked up a word of warning for a foul on Winters, but Mackie escaped after he left Ulrik Laursen writhing in agony, the big Dane recovering after treatment although he appeared to be limping.
It was no surprise when Laursen was forced to limp out of the action after 27 minutes, his place being taken by Scott Bannerman in a switch which resulted in Tom Smith moving to left wing-back while the substitute patrolled the right flank.
Aberdeen went close in the 32nd minute when Darren Young threaded a neat pass through to Winters, who twisted past Gary Smith only to see his low left-foot shot beat Colgan and the far post.
Bannerman picked up a yellow card for a foul on Derek Young in the 35th minute before Paatelainen fed Agathe who saw his shot go straight into the arms of Ryan Esson as did another effort from John O’Neil.
There was a fright for Hibs in the dying seconds of the half as Darren Young crossed for his brother, Derek, who couldn’t get enough power on his shot from 16 yards to trouble Colgan.
With seconds to the half-time whistle Zitelli replaced Matthias Jack and he almost marked his first touch of the ball with a goal, firing in a shot from 25 yards which Esson did well to beat aside.
Hibs carved out the first chance of the second half, Tom Smith floating in a cross which Paatelainen rose to meet with his head, the ball, however, went well over.
Latapy should have doubled Hibs’ advantage in 64 minutes when he rifled a shot which deflected dangerously and Esson was only just able to turn it past the post. Latapy joined Bannerman and Zitelli in referee McCurry’s book in the 73rd minute and he could have few complaints after tugging the jersey of Darren Young who had turned him beautifully. But the Dons were made to pay as Paatelainen struck for the second time in four days to double Hibs’ lead.
There was more than a slice of luck attached, however, as Bannerman’s cross from the right clipped off the unsuspecting McGuire and came off the face of the bar, dropping invitingly at the feet of the Hibs striker who tapped it into the empty net.