HEARTS recorded their first victory in the Premiership’s top six last night – and only their second in six years at Pittodrie – thanks to Abiola Dauda’s winning goal.
The Nigerian striker pounced to score on 64 minutes after Aberdeen goalkeeper Adam Collin parried Alim Ozturk’s rasping 25-yard free-kick.
The Edinburgh side had to withstand a late onslaught as those in red pressed for an equaliser. The result meant nothing in terms of league placings but it was a welcome morale boost for Hearts after just one win in their last seven outings. They showed patience during a difficult opening period and, after taking the lead, ensured the closed the game out efficiently.
The BT Sport cameras were responsible for switching this fixture to an unusual Thursday night slot. Their viewers weren’t exactly treated to a spectacle of free-flowing football. That will be of little interest to Hearts or their travelling fans, who left the stadium cheering a hard-earned victory.
Aberdeen unveiled plans for a new stadium in the west of the city earlier in the day, and that provided plenty talking points for the home support prior to kick-off. The cost of the project is reported to be in the region of £40million for a ground with a capacity of 19,000.
The match began beneath pleasant evening sunshine in the north east with Hearts eager to improve their form having won only one of their last seven matches. They kept faith with Jack Hamilton in goal and granted the teenage Canadian Dario Zanatta a start on the left flank.
Aberdeen fielded 19-year-old Scott McKenna at centre-back for his first start at senior level. Ten points separated the two clubs in the league at kick-off, with Aberdeen guaranteed second spot and Hearts third. Neither side had much to play for other than pride but that didn’t stop the players playing a fairly frenetic pace from kick-off.
Callum Paterson, fresh from his call-up to the Scotland squad, was involved in one of several crunching tackles during a combative start to proceedings. Aberdeen forced Hearts on to the back foot immediately and might have taken an early lead had Graeme Shinnie managed to connect with Kenny McLean’s cross.
The hosts’ pressure continued thereafter. Hearts fashioned a half-chance when Dauda fed Juanma for a low cross from the left which evaded all of the Spaniard’s team-mates inside the penalty area. Aberdeen went back on the attack and won a free-kick when Juwon Oshaniwa fouled Jonny Hayes. Niall McGinn arced a shot at goal from 20 yards but the ball sailed over Hamilton’s crossbar.
Collin faced the game’s first effort on target from Prince Buaben on 34 minutes. He went low to his right to push the midfielder’s left-footed attempt for a corner. As the interval approached, the visitors were beginning to assert themselves better using quick balls in behind the home defence. Hamilton still had to save from Shay Logan after an adventurous attacking run by the full-back.
The quality of play hadn’t always been great but there was no shortage of effort on show. There was no escaping the fact this was an unusually low-key affair involving two of the country’s top three sides. Such is the case at such a late stage in the campaign with all of the major issues already decided.
The pace of the game continued into the second period. Hamilton emerged strongly to punch Hayes’ tantalising cross clear ten minutes after the restart. Play was switching from end to end, Dauda was off target with a half chance after being forced wide, and Hayes’ powerful drive from 25 yards looked goalbound until the ball ricocheted off Perry Kitchen. McGinn then cut in from the left flank to angle a shot towards the far corner and was narrowly off target.
It was always likely that a set-piece could influence such a tightly-fought contest, and so it proved on 64 minutes when Hearts moved in front. Ryan Jack’s foul on Paterson presented Ozturk with the perfect opportunity to lash a free-kick at goal from 25 yards out. The Turkish centre-back unleashed one of his trademark piledrivers which Collin parried. Dauda was in place to slot the loose ball into the net from close range before setting off to celebrate in front of the travelling support.
A goal to the good, Hearts set about trying to see out the remainder of the game. Aberdeen replaced young McKenna – who had performed well – with Cammy Smith. They hoped to get forward and ask more questions of the visiting defence, which Ozturk was marshalling well. There was always the danger Hearts would sit too deep, though, as the game wore on.
Gavin Reilly was introduced for Dauda to offer a touch of freshness to the forward line. Perhaps Robbie Neilson, the Hearts head coach, was conscious of letting his team defend on their own 18-yard line.
Aberdeen sent bodies forward in numbers as the minutes ticked away, although it must be said they struggled to break through for any notable scoring opportunities. Hamilton remained reliable in goal whenever the ball was launched into his penalty box. The back four were well protected by central midfielders Arnaud Djoum and Kitchen.
Jordan McGhee replaced Juanma for three minutes of stoppage time to further reinforce the Hearts defence. They managed to stay firm and earn a decent win ahead of the season-ending fixture with St Johnstone this Sunday.
Aberdeen (4-2-3-1): Collin; Logan, Taylor, McKenna (Smith 70), Considine; Flood (Nuttall 81), Jack; McGinn, Hayes, Shinnie; McLean.
Unused subs: Lennox, Reynolds, Robson, Storie, Wright.
Hearts (4-4-2): Hamilton; Paterson, Ozturk, Souttar, Oshaniwa; Buaben, Kitchen, Djoum, Zanatta (Nicholson 68); Juanma (McGhee 90), Dauda (Reilly 79).
Unused subs: Alexander, Pallardo, L Smith, Moore.
Referee: Andrew Dallas.