Aberdeen striker Duk battled his way to his best performance of the season in the Dons’ gritty 2-2 Europa Conference League draw against PAOK in Greece.
Duk was the headline inclusion in boss Barry Robson’s starting XI at Toumba Stadium, Thessaloniki – and despite the result extinguishing the Reds’ hopes of progression to the knock-out stages with two games left to play, the showing of the forward was one of the big positives for the visitors on a thrilling night.
Miovski fitness issue means Duk gets chance in Robson’s currently-preferred one-striker system
Dons manager Robson had opted for one striker in previous daunting Conference League clashes – away at Eintracht Frankfurt, and then at home to PAOK.
He has since gone for the same approach in the two domestic victories which followed the miserable 2-0 Premiership defeat at Kilmarnock two weekends ago.
Bojan Miovski has filled this lone striker role on each occasion it has been one up top – with Duk benched for both the 4-2 victory at Motherwell and then Saturday’s Viaplay Cup semi-final victory over Hibs over the last week.
But there were suspicions top goalscorer Miovski was not fully fit for the visit to PAOK, having come off late on (for Ester Sokler) after scoring the goal which proved to be the winner in the semi at Hampden.
During Wednesday’s pre-match press conference in Thessaloniki, Robson confirmed he had players struggling with knocks – but did not name any of them.
However, with his absence from the starting line-up, Miovski was all-but-confirmed to have had some kind of fitness issue.
With 10 goals so far this season, not having the North Macedonian forward, who has been their star-man, was a blow for the Dons.
However, Robson gave the opportunity to lead the line to Duk, who scored the same number of goals in all competitions (18) as Miovski last season, and overshadowed him in the second half of last term.
Sluggish start to season for last term’s star performer Duk
But Duk has undoubtedly had a sluggish first few months of this campaign.
The Cape Verde international had scored just twice in his 17 appearances this season before Thursday against PAOK in Greece – including the Dons’ fourth at Fir Park last midweek.
But, as stated, when Robson swapped out Miovski against Hibs on Saturday at the national stadium, he called on summer signing Sokler – a bit-part player at this early point in his Aberdeen career – not Duk.
Of the three Conference League group matches Aberdeen played before Thursday, Duk had not netted and had only started the 1-1 home draw with HJK Helsinki.
In that game, he played in a front two with Miovski as the Reds secured their only point in the first half of the group due to his strike partner’s leveller.
But he then also wasted a chance at the death himself to secure what would have been an important continental win, and – although he came to life after coming on and scoring against Motherwell – he had also frequently looked jaded in the opening part of the campaign.
Duk makes two big contributions in Reds’ gritty draw at PAOK
Coming into the team at Toumba Stadium, you’d imagine Duk was feeling the pressure to make an impact. And it was a weight which would only have increased when he didn’t touch the ball at all in the opening stages.
However, on 15 minutes, he played the key role in Aberdeen seizing the lead.
Another unexpected starter, Ryan Duncan, playing on the right of midfield, knocked it deftly down the line to overlapping right-back Nicky Devlin and he squared it to Duk standing six yards from goal.
Before Thursday, across all competitions this term, Duncan had made only three starts and six sub appearances – with just 19 minutes at Frankfurt in the Conference League to his name.
With Duncan beginning the passage of play, the PAOK defenders seemed to stop as Duk swivelled and fired a left-footed shot low to keeper Dominik Kotarski’s left to finish it.
For the remainder of the first half, following a frustrating PAOK equaliser from Taison on 23 minutes, Duk was back on the periphery of proceedings.
However, when the ball got as far as PAOK half, Duk battled gamely with home defender William Troost-Ekong to try to make it stick. Putting himself about despite only reaching a total of three or four touches of the ball for the first period.
Still, he showed his determination to have an impact for Aberdeen at the start of the second half – using his speed and putting in two strong challenges on PAOK right-back (and skipper) Vieirinha.
Substitute Mbwana Samatta then headed PAOK into a deserved lead on 67 minutes.
Four minutes later, though, Duk made his second crucial contribution of evening for Aberdeen – using his body to win a free-kick under the high ball 25-plus yards from goal. And it was a set-piece Jamie McGrath sensationally curled into the bottom left corner beyond Kotarski.
In the final 10 minutes – after PAOK were denied a farcical penalty on VAR review following a blatant dive from (also offside) home centre-half Konstantinos Koulierakis – Dons boss Robson, clearly thinking a first Conference League group win was there to be claimed in Greece, sent on Miovski to partner Duk.
But this only lasted five minutes before Sokler replaced a knackered Duk for the closing stages.
It had certainly been Duk’s best performance of the season, doing the already difficult job of leading the line solo against a strong European outfit, in front of a noisy PAOK support.
The lone striker role is one it has often been suggested Duk can’t do in the season-and-a-bit since he arrived at Pittodrie.
The former Benfica youth player debunked this theory on Thursday in Thessaloniki, by scoring one goal and grafting for Aberdeen to help them land another.
Will Duk now stay in the team for another challenging away fixture when Robson’s Dons visit Celtic in the Premiership on Sunday?