A straightforward defeat at Pittodrie did little for Hearts’ morale or that of their fans.
Chasing second place in the Ladbrokes Premiership, Aberdeen dominated the Tynecastle side and enjoyed a comfortable victory with first-half goals from Anthony O’Connor and Gary Mackay-Steven.
Hearts have now won only two of their last ten games and face a huge fight to stop their season petering out entirely. They were playing only for pride in the north east, although there was little satisfaction to take back to the Capital after an uninspiring display.
Aberdeen moved three points clear of Rangers in second spot with a strong and confident performance in front of the BT Sport cameras. They were 2-0 ahead at the break and, although they would have liked a third goal, were sensible enough not to give Hearts any route back into the match.
Without Marcus Godinho because of a knee injury, the Hearts manager Craig Levein resisted the temptation to throw Demetri Mitchell back into action after eight weeks out. The on-loan Manchester United left-back returned to Riccarton on Monday after completing his rehabilitation with his parent club. However, he will be allowed more training time before being reintroduced to the rigours of first-team football.
Aberdeen named an attacking line-up to continue their pursuit of that second spot. Their last encounter was a 2-0 victory away at in-form Kilmarnock. Previous to that, they lost in the Scottish Cup semi-final to Motherwell and in the Premiership to Hearts at Tynecastle – both without registering a goal.
Lewis Moore took the Hearts left wing-back slot as Levein tried a new experiment in his team’s problem position, with the Jambos having to field players out of position in that role since Mitchell’s injury. However, it was Aberdeen’s left-back who made the most notable early impression.
Three minutes were on the clock when Graeme Shinnie advanced from his defensive berth to sting the palms of the visiting goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin from 25 yards. The hosts enjoyed the bulk of possession during the opening period and it was no great surprise when they opened the scoring on 21 minutes.
Niall McGinn’s outswinging corner from the right was nodded downwards by the towering Sam Consgrove. Inside the six-yard box and unmarked to ram the bouncing ball home was Aberdeen centre-back O’Connor. Hearts looked around one another seemingly bewildered. They would have fallen two behind moments later had goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin not produced a smart save low to his right to stop McGinn’s first-time shot from a cross ball.
The remainder of the first half belonged to those in red, who tried to pass their way through Hearts and use the wide areas whenever possible. McGinn and Mackay-Steven were obvious threats on their respective flanks. It was the latter who found a second goal eight minutes before the interval. Kenny McLean slid an exquisite through ball in behind the Hearts defence and the onrunning Mackay-Steven was in space to stroke it first-time into the far corner of the net with his left foot.
Hearts’ only attempt at goal of any real note during a poor first-half display belonged to Moore. He ventured forward on the left side and cut inside on to his right foot for a low drive which appeared to take a deflection before rolling past the post. The resultant corner from Don Cowie landed out of play as if to sum up the Edinburgh club’s tortuous first 45 minutes.
The 460 travelling fans would have been expecting significant improvement from their team after the interval. The lack of creativity and attacking intent was undeniable as Aberdeen dominated proceedings. Moore and Randall swapped places for the restart as Levein tried to shake things up.
Kyle Lafferty, Steven Naismith and Euan Henderson combined well just a few minutes into the second period to offer a glimmer of hope. Lafferty’s laid the ball off to Naismith, who fed Henderson and ran on to the return ball. In behind the Aberdeen defence, the on-loan Norwich City forward’s low cross was blocked and the danger cleared.
The Pittodrie side then came close to a third as play swung up the other end. Shay Logan crossed from the right for Cosgrove to meet the ball on the run. His header was destined for the rigging until McLaughlin appeared with another of those vital interventions. Clearly, Aberdeen wanted a third goal advantage to completely kill off their guests. A swerving volley by Dominic Ball on 68 minutes flew not too far over McLaughlin’s crossbar.
It should be said Hearts were by now passing the ball slightly better, although too often they allowed themselves to be caught in possession when a red shirt put them under pressure. They structured a neat move down the right 12 minutes from the end, which saw Michael Smith deliver a low cutback towards Lafferty. The Northern Irishman’s first-time attempt finished wide, and his volley moments later was too high.
Substitute Harry Cochrane’s dipping shot on 90 minutes was the last proper attempt at goal on an evening which will not live long in the memory for anyone who travelled from Edinburgh to watch.
Aberdeen: Lewis; Logan, O’Connor, McKenna, Shinnie; Ball, McLean; Mackay-Steven, Cosgrove (Rooney 75), McGinn (Considine 83); May (Christie 76). Unused subs: Woodman, Arnason, Reynolds, Stewart.
Hearts: McLaughlin; Souttar, Hughes, Berra; Randall (Irving 74), Cowie (McDonald 82), M Smith, Moore; Naismith, Henderson (Cochrane 58); Lafferty. Unused subs: J Hamilton, C Hamilton, Callachan, Amankwaa.
Referee: Andrew Dallas.