ONE consolation for Hearts is that few teams could live with Aberdeen on this form. After beating Celtic at home then winning at Tynecastle on consecutive weekends, the Pittodrie club’s title credentials are clear. They mean business.
An overwhelming first-half blitz yesterday brought their first win in Gorgie for five-and-a half years, keeping them top of the Ladbrokes Premiership with eight wins from eight. They delivered a counter-attacking lesson to Hearts to lead 3-0 at half-time and affirm their status as league leaders.
Two goals from David Goodwillie – a surprise but inspired selection ahead of the in-from Adam Rooney – and one from Niall McGinn put Aberdeen out of sight. Igor Rossi’s first goal in maroon reduced the deficit early in the second period, but by then the final result was beyond any doubt.
Visiting Tynecastle was regarded as a major test of Aberdeen’s mettle and manager Derek McInnes admitted as much afterwards. They passed one examination by beating Celtic with ten men last weekend. An efficient midweek win over Hamilton preceded a rampant 45 minutes in Edinburgh which exposed many of Hearts’ defensive weaknesses.
Aberdeen broke forward from their own half to score three times and demostrate their clinical finishing, pace and direct approach. It must be said they were helped by a disjointed looking home defence, which now needs attention after Hearts’ third successive loss.
Blazej Augustyn returned after a six-week injury absence and Rossi moved to left-back to compensate for the suspended Juwon Oshaniwa. Miguel Pallardo played for the first time this season after injury and lacked match fitness, with Morgaro Gomis still absent following the death of his father. Poor concentration killed them, particularly when coping with counter-attacks.
“We switched off three times in the first half and lost the game. That was it. End of story, really,” said Robbie Neilson. “I actually thought we played some good football in the first half. At this level, if you’re not focused for the full ninety minutes, if you switch off for thirty seconds, you get punished. We got punished severely.
“At the first goal, we give away a silly free-kick in an area where we spoke about not doing that. It was a great delivery [from McGinn], which you get at this level, and we didn’t pick up the runner. After that, we played some decent football but our final pass and decision-making was poor. Then we were stung twice because we switched off again. To compete at this level, you have to be focused for the full ninety minutes. Even after going a goal behind, we still played football and we changed the shape a little bit but we got stung on the counter-attack twice. That’s the disapponting thing.
“The third goal summed up our day. We had a free-kick in a good area. The delivery was poor because it hit the first man. We’re not organised at the back because we left Pallardo, who had already been booked, one against one. He couldn’t foul in case he got sent off and they go and score. It’s silly stuff and it’s stuff we need to work on.”
Callum Paterson’s foul on Goodwillie near the corner flag between Tynecastle’s main and Gorgie Road stands led to the first goal. McGinn produced a pinpoint cross which Goodwillie rose to head downwards. Neil Alexander, the Hearts goalkeeper, got a hand to the ball but couldn’t prevent it crossing the goal line. That was on nine minutes.
Fourteen minutes later, Aberdeen broke forward at pace to double their lead. Ryan Jack’s loping ball towards the same corner found McGinn, who evaded Augustyn with frightening ease. A stepover took him past Paterson just as easily inside the penalty box before an accurate finish into the far corner of the net from an acute angle. Two-nil would have been difficult enough for Hearts to overturn in the second half. However, Aberdeen struck again seconds from the interval. Once more, it was a counter-attack. Jamie Walker’s free-kick at the opposite end was cleared quickly and the visitors’ break ended with McGinn skipping clear of Pallardo to square for Goodwillie. Alexander slipped going across his goal and the striker stroked the ball into the corner of the net from around 12 yards.
Tynecastle is a hostile place when full but the 1475 travelling fans were making all the din as the half-time whistle sounded. They knew the game was won. Hearts fans in the capacity crowd jeered their team from the field, doubtless thinking likewise. Rossi prodded a close-range finish home following a corner early in the second half but chances of a comeback were slim.
Aberdeen are too resilient and well-organised under McInnes to forsake a three-goal lead. Paterson did hit the crossbar with a deflected free-kick but the visitors held firm. Each week brings a different test which they negotiate with minimum fuss. There should be no surprise at their five-point lead over Celtic at the top.
“Of all the games, this was going to be as tough a challenge as any,” said McInnes. “We were up against a team not used to losing here and, with that crowd behind them, it was important we got off to a good start. Once we got the goal, we played with a lot of game intelligence and real quality. We managed the game really well in the first half.
“I felt Hearts maybe chased the game a wee bit too quickly at 1-0. We still had to capitalise on that and I thought our counter-attacking play was excellent. We’ve come to a difficult venue and got the job done.
“McGinn was excellent, he contributes so many assists for us and he’s a typical counter-attacking player. We knew we had to stand up to Hearts’ size. Their whole back four is 6ft 2in plus and they’ve got two big strikers in Juanma and Osman Sow. Every time a throw or a set-play came in, we had to deal with that. It’s disappointing to lose a goal but overall we stood up to that threat and we picked them off.”
Indeed, Aberdeen might have scored more in the second half as Alexander saved well from both Peter Pawlett and McGinn. Hearts remain third in the league but a bit behind the two leading clubs for now. It is probably where they expected to be as the league’s newly-promoted club.
“I think it’s a learning curve for us all – staff, players and fans,” said Neilson. “We came up and won the first five games and everyone said we were going to do this and that. We’re under no illusions. We’re a Championship team that’s been promoted. Eighteen months ago, we were sitting here wondering if we were going to go out of business. The players have to handle playing in big games with big expectations. We’ve still got a long way to go.”