Aberdeen’s moment on the big stage was flattened by an ebullient and boisterous Motherwell who bulldozed their way to the Scottish Cup final.
Motherwell had a gameplan and it worked; their relentless physical style caught the Dons on the hop and they could not deal with it. To label their approach robust does not do it justice. Sure, they win the majority of their aerial battles, but they press feverishly as a team, show great desire to charge on to second balls and play with an insatiably high tempo.
The way Aberdeen shrunk in the last four of a cup is worrying. They tried to fight fire with fire but could not match the physicality of their opponents. In the end, their normal fluidity gave way to hopeful long balls. It proved their undoing.
Both teams adopted a midfield three, with the Dons having Anthony O’Connor screen behind Chidi Nwakali and Ryan Christie, ensuring they would not be overrun in the middle of the park. Allan Campbell and Andy Rose sat in for Motherwell, with Liam Grimshaw given the freedom to support Curtis Main and Ryan Bowman.
The onus was on Christie to do what he does best: collect the ball in space and create something in a threatening position. He was left of the pair and had Adam Rooney working in front of him, with the Irish forward given licence to drift inside and support Stevie May. But it often left them short on the left flank, with Christie and Rooney inclined to come inside and Andrew Considine not always getting up to offer an overlap.
Well have shown this season they can go toe-to-toe with the best sides in Scotland and they certainly do not need any help in that regard. Aberdeen handed it to them. Dominic Ball’s hesitation gave Richard Tait all the time he needed to pick out Curtis Main, albeit with the use of his arm to control the ball. Main made no mistake from four yards.
Much has been made of Motherwell’s physical approach but it paid dividends for the second. Bowman bullied Kari Arnason out of the way to reach Scott McKenna’s skewed clearance and Joe Lewis probably could have done better to divert his initial effort away from goal. However, the ball came back to the striker to turn home.
The gameplan was clearly to target Ball and Arnason and it worked. They won the physical battles and rattled the right side of the Dons defence. With a two-goal deficit the urgency to get the ball forward meant any build-up play was non-existent, handing possession straight back to a buoyed-up Well.
Niall McGinn was introduced with 30 minutes to go for the outmatched Ball and the Dons went three at the back, in a desperate attempt to get something going up front. But it was Main who stole the show again, blocking Arnason’s attempted clearance and battling past the Icelander to race clear and lift beyond Lewis.
As poor as the Dons defence was – the Reds seemed incapable of handling an aggressive Motherwell strikeforce – credit must go to Main. He pressed relentlessly, actively engaged in a physical battle with Arnason because he knew he had the beating of him and kept his head in front of goal.
The Dons offered little going forward, even when they had to be cavalier and go for a goal. Their attack lacked impetus and you hope their season now does not suffer the same fate, with Rangers and Hibernian sniffing blood in the race for second in the Premiership.