Thursday, April 14, 2011
Last-chance saloon for Dons
The mercurial Sone Aluko holds the key to keeping Aberdeen's indifferent season alive. Craig Brown's troops, who have won just one of their last eight league games, face Celtic in a Scottish Cup semi-final showdown on Sunday at Hampden.
It's now being billed as a game the Dons must win to save their latest campaign from finishing with a series of meaningless matches in the bottom half of the Scottish Premier League.
Aberdeen suffered their latest defeat at the hands of Celtic's city enemies Rangers at Pittodrie just days ahead of the crucial cup clash. The match, one of the most eagerly contested fixtures on the SPL calendar, was decided by a stunning first-half Nikica Jelavic strike that keeps Rangers in the title hunt.
However, it was once again a case of what might have been for Brown's troops as they lacked a killer touch. Aberdeen, who were without skipper Paul Hartley, David McNamee and Rory McArdle among others, threatened in flashes without ever finding a way past Rangers keeper Allan McGregor.
And it was Aluko who always looked most likely to carve out a clear-cut chance. The 22-year-old, initially a product of the Birmingham City youth system before moving north, had the measure of Maurice Edu as the American was played out of position at right back.
Now Aluko's return to form in the closing stages of the season has offered Brown hope that the talented winger could inspire his side to an unexpected victory over Celtic.
Brown, clearly still smarting from the Rangers defeat, reckons the reds deserve a change of fortune following a string of marginal losses.
"We're making chances but not taking them which is a bit of a concern," Brown said. "The goal was slightly harsh on us as Chris Maguire was penalised for backing into a defender just before it and I felt Jelavic did exactly the same thing before he scored.
"Although all credit to him he scored with a wonderful overhead kick and all credit to Rangers for battling on but we deserved more than we got out of the game. People were playing for places against Celtic in Sunday's Scottish Cup semi-final and a few of them did themselves no harm at all.
"However, we had eight players ruled out with injury before the Rangers game and now Steven Smith has picked up a calf strain so we could be without nine players.
"We're hoping to have a few players back before the weekend while Celtic who played St Johnstone on Tuesday night have an extra day to prepare. Saying that there's a great spirit in the Aberdeen and all the players will be right up for the semi-final in a game that could make or break our season.
"I'm encouraged ahead of the Celtic game after what I've seen against Rangers as we deserved to get at least a point out of that match. We've left Sone out of the team from time to time this season but no matter which flank he played on against Rangers he really sparkled, so it's very encouraging to have him on good form ahead of the cup game with Celtic."
Aluko is likely to square up to Mark Wilson in the Celtic clash and if he can find a way past against his opponent it could well help end Aberdeen's recent Hoops hoodoo. The Dons have already shipped 17 goals in four clashes with Neil Lennon's side this season and will be aiming to gain an element of revenge on Sunday.
There'll be a huge weight of expectation on the back four to stifle the threat of the Celtic forward line. Gary Hooper has already proved to a thorn in the Dons' side this term but he missed the midweek league win over St Johnstone so may well be a doubt for the cup fixture.
But Lennon can still call upon the likes of Antony Stokes and Georgios Samaras among others so won't be short on firepower. Perhaps the biggest threat will come from Kris Commons, who can both create and score goals from a deeper role.
If Brown can mastermind a plan to restrict Commons and use Aluko's pace on the counter, it could well prove to be a fruitful tactic. However, Aluko won't be the only red charged with the task of trying to carve a way past the Celts.
Chris Maguire displayed glimpses of his talent against Rangers and will again have to be at his best if Aberdeen are to pull off a cup shock. The Scotland cap, who has been heavily linked with a summer switch to England, caused problems for the Rangers rearguard with his clever runs and general trickery.
Maguire will again be expected to lead the charge alongside Scott Vernon in attack at Hampden but it will be down to Aluko to provide the creativity on the flanks which could unlock Celtic's defence.