The champagne remains on ice – for another week at least – as Aberdeen dug deep to take all three points at Kilmarnock and maintain their push for a European place.
Hibernian’s win against champions-elect Celtic in the lunchtime kick-off ensured the pressure, which was already on Aberdeen’s shoulders following their defeat at Hearts in their last league outing and Scottish Cup exit to Motherwell a week ago, was even greater with the Dons finding themselves fourth in the league by 3pm Saturday.
That it has become so congested among the teams chasing Celtic is down to Hibs’ late run coinciding with the Dons and Rangers dropping points in recent weeks but Kenny McLean’s fine goal just before half-time put them on course for a valuable three points.
Shay Logan added a second just before the hour to put his side in control of the game and Derek McInnes’s men did not relinquish their grip as they claimed a valuable win.
There are more tests to come in the final four matches but, with Aberdeen having home advantage for three of them, this morale-boosting victory gives the Dons confidence they can end strongly.
The Dons were toothless at Hampden in their last outing but they gave an early warning of their intent at Rugby Park with Killie goalkeeper Leo Fasan called into action inside the opening two minutes, making a fine save to keep out Scott McKenna’s header.
The Dons showed all the qualities that were absent in the cup semi-final in a strong opening. They were aggressive, on the front foot and dominant but Killie tested Joe Lewis with their first effort and the goalkeeper did well to push away Alan Power’s low drive from the edge of the box.
The chance injected some confidence into the hosts and they pushed the Dons back into their own half and May became an increasingly isolated figure as he was left chasing one long ball after another.
However, Aberdeen’s fortunes took a turn for the better thanks to McLean.
The Dons midfielder seemed to convince Killie goalkeeper Fasan he was going to deliver a diagonal ball into the box from 35 yards but the on-loan Norwich man had other ideas and his low, curled drive beat Fasan at his near post. On the balance of play Aberdeen were worth it but the manner in which his side conceded the goal will have annoyed Kilmarnock manager Steve Clarke.
McLean’s excellence of execution was the difference and his 10th goal of the season illustrated how sorely he will be missed at Pittodrie next season.
Dons captain Graeme Shinnie denied Killie an equaliser at the start of the second half when he cleared Kris Boyd’s volley off the line and tempers flared when Stephen O’Donnell seemed to floor Ryan Christie before squaring up to McLean.
Dons boss McInnes was furious at the initial incident but referee Nick Walsh deemed yellow cards for O’Donnell and McLean sufficient punishment.
Emotions were running high but Aberdeen kept their cool to double their lead just before the hour mark.Anthony O’Connor’s powerful header was parried on the line by Fasan into the path of
Logan, who converted from a yard to put his side in firm control as the Dons saw out the match to claim the victory.
KILMARNOCK (4-4-2 ) – Fasan 5, O’Donnell 5, Broadfoot 5, S. Boyd 5 (Erwin 62), Findlay 6, Power 6, Dicker 6, Taylor 5, Kiltie 5 (Burke 84), Brophy 5 (Cameron 72), K. Boyd 5. Subs not used –
Greer, MacDonald, Simpson, Wilson.
ABERDEEN (4-2-3-1) – Lewis 6, Logan 6, O’Connor 6, McKenna 6, Reynolds 6, Shinnie 7, Ball 6, Christie 5 (Rooney 64), McLean 7, Stewart 7 (Arnason 85), May 6 (Mackay-Steven 72). Subs not used – Woodman, Wright, Harvie, Cosgrove.
Referee – Nick Walsh 6
Attendance – 5,067.
Man of the match – Kenny McLean.