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Hearts 2-1 Aberdeen – The Verdict: Player ratings, talking points and star man as Dons lose ‘£5 million’ showdown

Despite slumping to a 2-1 loss in a high-stakes showdown at Tynecastle, Aberdeen still remain in control of the race to finish third, with a two-point advantage over Hearts.

Lawrence Shankland scores to make it 2-1 Hearts against Aberdeen. Image: SNS
Lawrence Shankland scores to make it 2-1 Hearts against Aberdeen. Image: SNS

Aberdeen’s bid to finish third in the Premiership and land a potential multi-million cash boost suffered a blow with defeat at Tynecastle.

The Reds blew a one-goal lead to crash 2-1 to fourth-placed Hearts in a game which was billed as a potential £5 million showdown.

Aberdeen could have secured a third-placed finish with a victory in Edinburgh, dependent on Hibs losing to Rangers.

However, Barry Robson’s Reds now face a high pressure end to the campaign after Hearts slashed their lead to just two points.

With only two games remaining, against St Mirren (h) and Celtic (a), the Dons remain in the driving seat to finish third.

Mattie Pollock celebrates making it 1-0 Aberdeen against Hearts. Image: SNS

But the Reds have hit a drop in form at the wrong time with Robson’s Reds taking just one point from the last three fixtures.

The Dons have not won since Robson was given the managerial position on a permanent basis, signing a two-year contract until the end of the 2024/25 season.

Aberdeen went ahead in the 31st minute when Mattie Pollock rose at the back post to meet a Leighton Clarkson corner and head in from five yards.

Hearts chief executive Andrew McKinlay (left) and Aberdeen Chairman Dave Cormack. Image: SNS

Hearts hit back in the 43rd minute with a magnificent strike from Josh Ginnelly who fired a superb effort into the right top corner from 20 yards.

Hearts captain Lawrence Shankland sealed the win with a near-post finish in the 56th minute.

Talking points

Hearts hold nerve in high-stakes Tynecastle clash

This was a high-stakes game and the biggest of the season for both clubs and it was Hearts who held their nerve.

Aberdeen remain two points ahead of fourth-placed Hearts with two games remaining – so they remain in the driving seat.

Mattie Pollock celebrates making it 1-0 Aberdeen with Angus MacDonald. Photo – SNS

The battle between Aberdeen and Hearts is about much more than the bragging rights of finishing best of the rest outside the Old Firm this season.

Finishing third can have major ramifications for next season as the potential financial reward is so huge.

The club which finishes third will receive a major financial boost of up to £5m.

That will give them a major advantage over their rivals in the summer transfer window.

The team who finish third will go into the Europa League play-offs – just one two-legged tie from the group stages – if Celtic win the Scottish Cup.

Hearts’ Josh Ginnelly scores to make it 1-1 against Aberdeen. Image: SNS

Qualifying for the Europa League groups brings a £3.2m Uefa prize payment and group-stage action until mid-December.

Should the third-placed club lose their Europa League play-off, there is the parachute of dropping into the Europa Conference League groups, which brings a £2.7 m prize.

Finishing third also lands a £3.5 million SPFL prize payment, £1m more than the £2.5 million paid out for fourth.

Aberdeen’s Marley Watkins and Kye Rowles in action at Tynecastle. Image:  SNS

Landing that bumper payday will give Aberdeen or Hearts the edge over rivals in the summer transfer window.

They will have a bigger transfer budget and the lure of European football until Christmas to help land signing targets.

At the moment Aberdeen might hold a two-point lead – but Hearts hold the momentum.

Danger of Shankland not dealt with

Aberdeen failed to cope with the danger of Hearts’ leading scorer and captain Lawrence Shankland.

No player has been involved in more goals in the Premiership this season than former Dons striker Shankland.

The Hearts captain had been involved in 26 league goals prior to facing the Dons – with 22 goals and four assists.

He added to that tally when netting to put Hearts 2-1 up.

Lawrence Shankland celebrates after scoring to make it 2-1 Hearts. Image: SNS

Shankland, who has scored 27 goals in all competitions, operated slightly behind Josh Ginnelly in a role which gave him that extra bit of space to create.

In the 56th minute, Shankland broke away from Liam Scales to race in at the near post to meet a cross from Alex Cochrane.

He clinically shot home from five yards.

The warning signs had been there before the goal as Shankland had been allowed the space to get seven shots off, two of them on target and saved by Roos.

With his eighth shot, Shankland made it count as keeper Roos was left badly exposed by his defence.

For a 100minute spell after that goal, the Aberdeen defence – previously so solid under manager Barry Robson – looked rattled.

The Dons backline had secured six clean sheets in the seven games before facing Hearts.

But they were fortunate not to fall further behind in that frantic spell after Shankland scored as Hearts flooded forward.

Hearts’ Lawrence Shankland celebrates after scoring to make it 2-1. Image: SNS

It was the heroics of keeper Kelle Roos who kept the scoreline down.

Roos was the hero last weekend with key blocks, and a penalty save, in the 0-0 draw with Hibs.

In that game, the Dutch keeper was able to salvage a point.

At Tynecastle, Roos’ heroics were not enough to salvage anything.

Major squad rebuild required during the summer window

Three players started this high-tempo, high-pressure game who had not started for Aberdeen in 2023.

It was a big ask to come in with limited game-time for such a huge match.

Midfielder Connor Barron was pitched in at Tynecastle for his first start since the 2-1 away loss to Kilmarnock on December 28.

Jayden Richardson and Marley Watkins also came in for first starts of 2023 and failed to fully impress with the opportunity.

Barron ran his heart out and tried to break down moves and create in midfield, but looked short of full match sharpness.

It was a huge, frantic game and a tough one to come in for a first start in five months.

The away section of Aberdeen fans at Tynecastle. Image: SNS

The 20-year-old has suffered a frustrating season due to injury and has been restricted to just 11 starts this season.

A late substitution appearance, for seven minutes, in the 0-0 draw with Hibs last weekend was Barron’s first game-time under manger Barry Robson.

Aberdeen offered Barron a “significant” new contract early in the season, but the midfielder has yet to sign it.

Barron has another year left on his current Aberdeen deal.

Midfielder Barron was substituted off after 60 minutes. He had given his all.

Striker Watkins made his first start since -0 loss at Dundee United on October 8, when he was substituted at half-time.

Out of contact at the end of the season, Watkins was replacement for star striker Duk – who failed a late fitness test on a hamstring injury.

Watkins had a low shot saved in the 18th minute from the edge of the box.

But that was Watkins’ only shot at goal. He had 32 touches and 14 passes before coming off in the 79th minute.

Right-back Jayden Richardson also made his first start since the 3-2 loss to Rangers on December 20.

Championship side Bristol City are on the verge of pushing through a deal to secure right-back/wing-back Ross McCrorie in a £2 million summer transfer.

Aberdeen are set to have Livingston right-back Nicky Devlin signed for next season

This was the chance for Richardson to deliver an argument for the right-back role next season, but he didn’t grab it.

Aberdeen’s Jayden Richardson and Kye Rowles of Hearts in action. Image: SNS

Talking tactics

Aberdeen boss Barry Robson made three changes to the starting XI which drew 0-0 with Hibs at Pittodrie.

There was a first start of 2023 for three players: Connor Barron (midfield), Jayden Richardson (right wing-back) and Marley Watkins (striker).

With striker Duk sidelined with a hamstring injury, Watkins came in to partner Bojan Miovski in a two-pronged attack.

Robson went with four at the back in the second half.

Referee watch

Kevin Clancy – Aberdeen were incensed when a penalty was not awarded in the 26th minute for a challenge on Marley Watkins in the box.

There was marginal contact and Clancy initially waved play on.

However, it went to a VAR review and no spot-kick was awarded.

Referee Kevin Clancy during Aberdeen’s clash with Hearts at Tynecastle. Image: SNS

There was also a VAR check for Hearts’ winner.

Player ratings

ABERDEEN (3-5-2): Roos 8; Pollock 6, MacDonald 6 (MacKenzie 60), Scales 6, Richardson 6, Barron 6 (Barron 60), Ramadani 6 (Bavidge 88),  Clarkson 6, Hayes 6 (Duncan 60), Watkins 6 (Markanday 79), Miovski 6

Subs not used: Lewis, Myslovic, Kennedy

Hearts’ Nathaniel Atkinson skips by Bojan Miovski of Aberdeen at Tynecastle. Image: SNS

HEARTS (4-2-3-1): Clark 7, Atkinson 7, Sibbick 7, Rowles 7, Cochrane 7, Devlin 7, Haring 7 (Kiomourtzoglou 88), Oda 7 (Forrest 77), Shankland 7, McKay 6 (Smith 76), Ginnelly 7 (Grant 64)

Subs not used: Stewart, Halliday, Tait, Kuol, Hill

Attendance: 18,861

Star man

Kelle Roos (Aberdeen): For the second game in succession, Dutch keeper Roos came to the rescue with a string of vital saves.

He made six key saves from eight shots.

He had no chance with Josh Ginnelly’s opener, which was a wonder strike.

Roos was left badly exposed by his defence for Lawrence Shankland’s winner.