This weekend sees the Scottish Cup semi finals take place at Hampden. On Saturday, Motherwell and St Johnstone will go head to head for a place in final with Aberdeen and Celtic facing each other on Sunday.
For Aberdeen, it is the chance to get to their first cup final in 11 years. Since the turn of the century almost every other team in the SPL has been to either the Scottish Cup or Scottish League Cup final. There are even a number of teams from the SFL who have made it all the way to Hampden, knocking Aberdeen out along the way.
The Dons have advanced as far as the semi-finals a few times since 2000. In 2008 they got to the semis of both the League and Scottish Cup losing to Dundee Utd 4-1 and unforgettably to Queen of the South 4-3 in a Hampden epic. Even this season The Dons made it to the League Cup semi, losing 4-1 to Celtic.
It’s getting over that final hurdle thats the problem.
Everyone and their dog knows The Dons have fallen a long way since the Alex Ferguson and Alex Smith glory days. Back then, between 1980 and 1990, Aberdeen reached a staggering 10 cup finals, winning 6 of them, mostly against the Old Firm.
The failure to get to a final be it Scottish or League Cup over the course of the last decade has essentially cost the likes of Jimmy Calderwood his job. Calderwood paid the price for cup exits against the likes of Queen of the South, Dunfermline, and Queens Park. His successor Mark McGhee fared little better, with cup knockouts at the hands of Dundee and Raith Rovers.
So what chance Craig Brown and Archie Knox fairing any better and steering the Dons past Celtic, a team who have mauled Aberdeen twice this season including a 9-0 league win and the 4-1 victory in the aforementioned League Cup semi-final earlier this season?
There is little doubt that Aberdeen have improved markedly under Brown. The former Scotland manager has consolidated The Dons status as an SPL side after a disastrous opening half to the season under Mark McGhee. (By the time McGhee was given the boot, Aberdeen had amassed only 10 points out of 45.) He has them better organised and installed a team-spirit that McGhee just couldn’t muster.
However the revival has hit the skids over the last few weeks as Aberdeen have lost their last five league games. In truth during that period they have actually played well and four of the five defeats have been by a single goal. Indeed they played Rangers of the park on Wednesday night losing only to a cracking overhead kick by Jelavic.
But Aberdeen appear to be running on empty in the build up to the semi final and the problem, as it has been all season, is of long term and recurring injuries.
The treatment tables at Pittodrie this season have been block booked by a number of key players. The likes of Fraser Fyvie, Sone Aluko, Zander Diamond, Yoann Folly, Darren Mackie and Peter Pawlett have all missed hefty chunks of the season. Those players essentially represent the spine of the team. Furthermore the walking wounded such as captain Paul Hartley, goalkeeper Jamie Langfield and fullback David MacNamee are just getting through each game and heading straight back to the physio table.
These injuries and the subsequent reliance on such as small pool of young players to carry the burden have left the team running on empty for the remainder of the season. It’s a small, young, tired squad that will have take on the might and experience of Celtic at Hampden. Furthermore, Aberdeen have been taken apart on numerous occasions by a this weekends opponents, who ooze fluency and class at times.
However, there are crumbs of comfort. Celtic appear to have a touch of the title jitters and over the last few weeks their performances have been less impressive than those of a few weeks ago. The goals aren’t flying in either as their last two SPL victories, against St Mirren and St Johnstone, were both 1-0.
Celtic’s title nerves aside, there are potentially a few more positives coming out of Pittodrie. Peter Pawlett and Sone Aluko are both back from injury and approaching match sharpness which gives Aberdeen a width they simply don’t have without them. That width will be needed on the enormous pitch at Hampden.
Top scorer Scott Vernon, who has been injured over the last few weeks should be fit enough to start. Fellow forward Chris Maguire’s form this season saw him called up to the senior Scotland squad for the match against Brazil while midfielder Robert Milsom has been an excellent capture from Fulham. Influential captain Paul Hartley may also be available after injury.
For all these positives however, you don’t have to look far for the negatives. The defence. There is a constant lack of cohesion and decisiveness across the backline. This is partly a hangover dating back to the first half of the season when The Dons played without a recognised fullback for months. Previous incumbent Mark McGhee, in all his wisdom, allowed the clubs only fullback, Ricky Foster to go on loan to Rangers of all clubs. Without fullbacks The Dons were dependent on either centre backs or midfielders filling those positions.
Although Brown has now filled those positions by bringing in Steven Smith on-loan from Norwich and David MacNamee on a free transfer, that dependency continues due to injuries and lack of form. The four centrebacks of Diamond, Considine, Vujadinovic and McArdle are constantly shuffled along the back four with midfielders Derek Young and 19 year old Ryan Jack often making up the numbers.
There is undoubtedly a lack of balance at the back and Brown will surely address this during the summer transfer window as he and Archie Knox attempt to rebuild and make Aberdeen a more credible force. Fullbacks will once gain be top of the shopping list while Diamond is rumoured to be on his way to Hearts and several other players contracts are up in the summer including the impressive Maguire.
As for Sunday, given the problems Aberdeen have with injuries and their defence it seems unlikely that they will have enough in tank to progress to that elusive final. But it is a cup semi final after all and upsets have happened many times before as Aberdeen have found to their cost. Remember Queen of the South?