Jay Emmanuel-Thomas looks like he will be the fulcrum for Aberdeen going forward this season.
The Englishman stood out a mile in the first half of last week’s 5-1 Europa Conference League win over BK Hacken with his calmness, technical ability and vision.
Despite a shaky start in Sweden for the return leg of the second qualifying round tie, the 30-year-old again demonstrated his qualities, as both a creator and as a player who new Pittodrie boss Stephen Glass will hope can bang the goals in over the course of the campaign.
The Dons were always on a hiding to nothing heading to Scandinavia with such a strong lead, and their nervy start reflected the pressure was on them, rather than their hosts.
Within seconds of kick-off, Hacken – who had no option but to fly at the visitors in search of a momentum-stealing first goal – saw Leo Bengtsson and Benie Traore have shots blocked.
When Aberdeen did get the ball forward in the early stages, it wouldn’t stick, with Emmanuel-Thomas’ first couple of contributions seeing him lose the ball when attempting a back heel and then with a heavy touch.
However, the ability Glass’ new-look strikeforce seems to have of creating chances out of nothing was apparent on the 10-minute mark, with strike partner Christian Ramirez playing in “JET” for a strike from 35 yards.
It was stopped comfortably by Hacken keeper Peter Abrahamsson, but it was a warning shot which seemed to shift the flow of the game.
Soon after, Emmanuel-Thomas showed the qualities more commonly associated with big forwards, chesting a high ball down to Scott Brown to spark Aberdeen’s first good passing move, before he cut the ball back to Ramirez from the left byeline on 20 minutes. The American’s swing-and-a-miss could easily have been the first goal.
Emmanuel-Thomas’ best moments of the match in Gothenburg were still to come, though.
On 27 minutes, he showed total composure in a packed penalty area to find room for a left-footed low shot, which was well blocked.
Big chance for JET to open the scoring but the keeper pulls off a smart save from close range.
— Aberdeen FC (@AberdeenFC) July 29, 2021
The Dons struggles in final days of the old regime often stemmed from a lack of guile and imagination against opponents who were camped in. JET’s pass on 33 minutes, which wiped out four Hacken defenders to put strike partner Ramirez clean through on goal, was a moment where his ability to conjure a chance out of thin air was on full display. It will be a very useful talent for the Granite City side this term.
Ramirez couldn’t take the chance, nor could he capitalise from range when set up again by JET soon after.
Emmanuel-Thomas’ pass to the onrushing Hedges a few minutes later, which ended up behind the wideman, wasn’t as great as his earlier moments of playmaking.
However, a scuffed back-post volley from a corner on the stroke of half-time was a reminder that – aside from have a creative talent – his sheer size and presence, combined with his movement, makes him a goal-threat, including at set-pieces.
At 0-0 on the night, it very much looked any shoots of optimism the home side might have had about whether they could turn the tie around had been flattened.
Nervous Reds almost let Hacken back into it
A clash immediately after the break meant JET was forced off for Teddy Jenks – although the change looked precautionary given the aggregate scoreline – with Glass also shifting to a more defensive shape in the hope of shutting the game down.
Ironically, the move had the opposite effect – a good one-two move on the edge of the Aberdeen area allowing former Premier League left-back Martin Olsson to slide the ball under Joe Lewis and into the net.
It was a mild blow, but no need to panic. It wouldn’t have been of much significance at all had Funso Ojo not spurned a harder-to-miss chance from close-range on 55 minutes after a rapid Dons break and lay-off from Ramirez.
Three minutes later, the home side almost got another, but Joe Lewis saved brilliantly to his left to deny a swivelling Nasiru Mohammed.
Things started to get concerning for the Reds with 20 minutes to play, with Leo Bengtsson stepping up to fire a penalty kick past Lewis after the keeper was forced to take him down after slack defending by Ross McCrorie and Andy Considine.
Not netting in the opening period was looking more regrettable by the minute.
The game was also becoming quite heated, however, and it was the home side, having fought their way back into the tie, who shot themselves in the foot next – with attacker Patrik Walemark receiving a second yellow for striking Reds replacement Jack MacKenzie with an arm.
The final period of the game was characterised by a succession of niggly fouls and a quite ridiculous amount of bookings dished out by Hungarian referee Adam Farkas. Including Walemark’s two, Farkas showed 10 yellow cards in the second period, with nine coming after the 68th minute.
The chaos meant any threat to Aberdeen’s lead in the tie dissipated.
Scotland centre-back Declan Gallagher came on for his Dons debut on 80 minutes, having already been yellow carded for a comment made to the referee while warming up. Getting booked before playing a minute must be a club first.
Aberdeen’s penultimate chance to get on the scoresheet in Sweden fell to Lewis Ferguson on 86 minutes, however, his free-kick was stopped from creeping in the bottom right corner by Abrahamsson.
Substitute Jack Gurr then produced a decent effort from range, but it was too close to the keeper.