Hearts suffered Friday night defeat at Pittodrie as Aberdeen strengthened their European credentials. Lewis Ferguson and Greg Stewart scored the goals for Derek McInnes’ side despite the visitors briefly equalising through Bobby Burns’ first goal in Scotland.
The result moved Aberdeen three points clear of Kilmarnock in the race for the Premiership’s last guaranteed Europa League place. Hearts competed well throughout the evening in what was at times quite a physical encounter. Burns’ goal was their highlight but Aberdeen carried more attacking power, which eventually paid dividends through Stewart’s winner 13 minutes from the end.
Hearts left out a clutch of first-team regulars as manager Craig Levein prioritised the Scottish Cup final later in the month. He made six changes in total from last week’s defeat by Kilmarnock. Goalkeeper Colin Doyle played for the first time since a costly error at Motherwell back in February. Clevid Dikamona, Jamie Brandon, Oliver Bozanic, Sean Clare and Burns also returned to the starting line-up.
Aberdeen’s most notable pre-match decision was the inclusion of captain Graeme Shinnie, who made a surprise return from injury. He has signed a pre-contract agreement to join Derby County but is first required to help his current employers’ European quest.
Aberdeen started this match sitting joint third in the Premiership and level on points with Kilmarnock. Victory over Hearts would be a massive step towards the Europa League qualifying rounds and the hosts started with plenty intent. They delivered several early crosses into the opposition penalty area without an end product materialising.
Their first shot of any description didn’t arrive until the 27th minute, Greg Stewart dragging an effort wide of Doyle’s goal from the edge of the penalty area. Left-back Max Lowe was a constant threat down the Aberdeen left and that was where many of their forward moves originated from.
The foul count grew during the first half as play was regularly interrupted. Hearts’ attacks were intermittent, with the veteran Steven MacLean playing as a lone striker. He needed support from attacking midfielders Clare and Ryan Edwards. Five minutes from the interval, Hearts’ first shot of note arrived from Bozanic, a dipping 25-yard effort held by Aberdeen’s Joe Lewis.
The goalkeeper was writhing in agony after being called upon again moments later. Christophe Berra’s header from Bozanic’s angled free-kick bounced towards Conor Shaughnessy. He reached the ball before the emerging Lewis eight yards out but touched it and collided with the Englishman’s knee. That resulted in another break in play and Lewis was eventually able to continue after a few minutes of treatment.
The Edinburgh club finished the first period strongly. When Brandon’s cross was inadvertently prodded into Dikamona’s path by Bozanic, Lewis again emerged with an important block for Aberdeen.
The 368 travelling fans would have been encouraged by their side’s performance in the lead-up to the interval. Restricting Aberdeen to such few openings was another positive. Yet the hosts increased the tempo after the restart and were quickly rewarded.
They fashioned an excellent chance on 52 minutes when Ferguson expertly cushioned a high ball into Sam Cosgrove’s path inside the penalty box. The big striker’s shot was pushed to safety by Doyle, but that only delayed the opening goal by seconds. When James Wilson’s cross landed with Ferguson, he got free of Brandon’s intentions to dispatch an emphatic finish into the net with his left foot from around 12 yards.
Doyle sprung low to his left to push away a shot from Cosgrove as Aberdeen threatened a quick-fire second goal. Hearts then introduced 16-year-old full-back Aaron Hickey for his professional debut. The Riccarton academy graduate had only been on the field a few minutes when his team equalised.
Bozanic crossed from the right flank following a throw-in and, after head-flicks by MacLean and Edwards, the ball bounced towards Burns at the back post. The Northern Irish wing-back swing his weaker right foot at it and managed to force it into the corner of the net despite not getting the cleanest connection. He was suitably delighted with his first Hearts goal.
Doyle prevented a certain second for Aberdeen when he repelled another Lowe cross which deflected off Shaughnessy. Burns completed the clearance but Aberdeen continued pursuing a winner. It arrived on 77 minutes – again from a Wilson delivery.
The on-loan Manchester United player supplied an intelligent low cutback for Stewart to curl a powerful first-time shot high beyond Doyle. That sparked a roar of relief around Pittodrie and was enough to settle this contest.
Hearts appealed for a penalty during a late onslaught when MacLean sprinted past Lewis and was fouled, but referee Bobby Madden judged the infringement to be just outside the box. Clare drove the set-piece into the stand in what was the final chance of the evening.
Aberdeen (4-2-3-1): Lewis; Logan, Considine (Devlin 72), McKenna, Lowe; Ball, Shinnie; Wilson, Ferguson, Stewart (May 85); Cosgrove. Unused subs: Cerny, Gleeson, Campbell, Ross, Virtanen.
Hearts (3-4-2-1): Doyle; Dikamona, Berra, Shaughnessy; Brandon (Hickey 62), Cochrane (C Smith 81), Bozanic, Burns; Edwards (Wighton 86), Clare; MacLean. Unused subs: Zlamal, Petkov, Lee, Mulraney.
Referee: Bobby Madden.