A stunning win for Aberdeen, one of their best in recent years, as the Europa League adventure continued with a superb and merited win against Dutch side Groningen.
Adam Rooney and Niall McGinn were the men on target in a hugely impressive performance against a powerful Dutch side.
Next up for the Dons is a trip to northern Spain next Thursday to face Real Sociedad, one more stop on an superb campaign with a place in the lucrative groups stages of the Europa now within reach.
This was a triumph of dedication and determination, with a defence which bent but would not break and the win was fitting reward for McInnes and his men who deserve immense praise for their organisation and refusal to be beaten at the Euroborg.
Aberdeen’s only change was midfielder Barry Robson dropping to the bench with Jonny Hayes moved into a more attacking role in midfield and Andrew Considine taking the diminutive Irishman’s place at left back.
Groningen manager Erwin van der Looi picked the same team as last Thursday for the return at the Euroborg Stadium and after an impeccably-observed minute’s silence for the victim’s of last Thursday’s plane disaster in the Ukraine – three of the victims were Groningen – and with smoke from a huge green flare still swirling around the ground the Dons quickly at their work with Niall McGinn shooting the edge of the penalty area.
Groningen’s pre-match confidence almost came to fruition with just four minutes played when Jojan Kappelhof powered in a header from a corner but with goalkeeper Jamie Langfield beaten, Hayes came to his side’s rescue with a header off the line. Moments later Serbian midfielder Filip Kostic was given a clear run at Langfield’s goal but shot across goal and wide from just eight yards – an astonishing miss.
The Dons needed wide men Peter Pawlett and Hayes on the ball and running at the Groningen defence and midway through the first half the promise turned into glorious reality when Hayes found space on the right and charged into the penalty area only for defender Eric Botteghin to slide in with a clumsy challenge.
Penalty said Polish referee Daniel Stefanski, and Adam Rooney kept his nerve, shooting low and left to give goalkeeper Sergio Padt no chance and give the Dons a crucial but largely merited advantage with his sixth Europa League goal of the campaign after he netted five in two games against Latvians Daugava Riga.
A perfect start and the stuff of dreams which was turn into complete fantasy with little more than half an hour played.
Rooney, bullish and bristling with intent, rolled and turned his marker in the penalty area and, although his lob beat Padt, it cannoned off the bar but dropped perfectly for Niall McGinn, who kept his nerve to shoot low and hard into the net.
This was no fluke. The Dons were throwing themselves into every challenge with abandon but could not hold out until half-time with Groningen captain Maikel Kieftenbeld reducing arrears with just seconds remaining before the interval with a powerful header which Langfield got a hand to, but could not keep out.
Momemtum was with the Dutch side and immediately after the interval and with two substitutions made and a passionate home support demanding attacks the pressure was on.
Incisive attacks stretched the Aberdeen defence but Langfield was inspired, making a stunning save to deny substitute Michael de Leeuw when a goal looked inevitable.
A time for calm heads and on came Robson for Pawlett with little more than an hour played.
A surging run and blocked shot from McGinn brought the Dons supporters to their feet, possession was at a premium but the Groningen players were starting to tire although Langfield again did well to parry a powerful drive from Tjarron Chery as the Dons defence buckled but did not break.
Eric Botteghin was the next to try his luck from distance, but again Langfield would not be denied, parrying the ball to safety as Groningen launched increasingly frantic attacks.
Russell Anderson and Mark Reynolds were superb at the heart of the defence, Willo Flood a crucial shield while David Goodwillie was given his chance to stretch the Groningen defence with less than 20 minutes remaining.
The frustration was growing for Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes, an increasingly agitated figure on the touchline as the reward of a match against Spanish club Real Sociedad moved ever closer.
Hayes’ strong run gave McGinn the chance to settle the match but his shot was blocked for a fruitless corner but Aberdeen were increasingly efficient in their game and time management, Robson the calming head as the contest edged into three minutes of added time.
The race had been run and the contest won, and the Dons were able to enjoy some ole football as the passion faded. Next stop Spain.
Next up; Real Sociedad!