THURSDAY’S Europa League Second Qualifying Round first leg against Siroki Brijeg did not go according to plan for Aberdeen.
A crowd of 17,067 turned up at Pittodrie hoping for a home victory to take in Bosnia, but left disappointed by a 1-1 score line that puts the tie firmly in the balance. The result means that the Dons need to score to have any chance of going through, a similar scenario to when they faced Maribor last season, where the Dons went down 1-0 to a freak last minute own goal.
Whilst the task of needing to win in Bosnia is undoubtedly a difficult one, there is recent history to suggest that Aberdeen can defeat Siroki and reach the same stage they’ve been involved in the last three seasons.
In 2014, Derek McInnes took his side to Dutch side Groningen at this stage in the tournament on the back of a goalless home leg and defied the odds with a fine 2-1 win in Holland. The following season, Aberdeen went to Croatian side Rijeka, who hadn’t lost a home European tie before, and stunned the hosts with a 3-0 victory. Even last season, they played well in Maribor and were undone by a poor refereeing decision and a penalty Miss from Adam Rooney before the last minute calamity put the nail in the coffin.
That experience will be invaluable when they take to the field against Siroki this week as they look to recover from the blow of losing that potentially crucial away goal.
Whilst many looked at this tie from the outset as nothing than a convincing win for Aberdeen, it was never going to be easy given that it was the Dons first competitive game of the season and it is a changed team from last season, particularly with the loss of key wingers Niall McGinn and Johnny Hayes being big shoes to fill.
Although, like Aberdeen, Siroki’s domestic campaign hasn’t kicked off, they benefitted from two competitive matches in the previous round, which helped them as they gained a deserved draw from Pittodrie.
Getting that first game out of the way will help Aberdeen in their trip to Bosnia and they should be that bit sharper as they seek to cancel out the away goal and turn the tie in their favour.
Ryan Christie was one of the best players in a red shirt last week, culminating with a very well taken opener, and he will be key again if the Dons are to progress. Whilst he is a certain starter, there are big decisions to be made in the other three advanced positions around him.
Does Derek McInnes persevere with Kenny McLean, who has been the subject of transfer speculation linking him to Rangers? He may have been a pivotal player in the second half of last season but McLean was, by his standards, poor in the first leg and there are questions as to whether he should make way to allow Christie to play more centrally.
Should those two start, it’s then one from new signings Gary MacKay-Steven and Greg Stewart. Both arrive with points to prove after indifferent spells at Celtic and Birmingham respectively, but both also have the capability to unlock the Siroki defence to help provide the goals to help the Dons progress.
Then there’s the strikers position, or could it be positions if McInnes plumps for two up front to recover the situation. Adam Rooney is in pole position to lead the line but he can be posted missing if the supply isn’t there, as it was at Pittodrie, and does have new boy Nicky Maynard and Jayden Stockley, free from suspension in the first leg, vying for his place. Maynard arrives with a point to prove having once been a prolific goal scorer in the Championship with Bristol City whilst Stockley’s physical presence should unsettle the opposition, so long as he keeps his elbows in check that’s led to three red cards in his Aberdeen career.
The general feeling from the Red Army is that Siroki are a beatable team, hence the frustration at being held by the Bosnian Cup Winners, and remain upbeat that they can pull off another away victory on their European travels. Evidence is there from Groningen and Rijeka that they can win and have the tools to do the job, now they need to produce the goods as Aberdeen seek to take a giant step towards the near impossible task of reaching the Europa League Group Stages.
After the disappointments of Rangers and St Johnstone in the First Qualifying Round, Scottish football could ill afford another European set back before July is even closed!