Aberdeen’s performance against Chikhura Sachkhere in Tbilisi last Thursday can be described as a case of ‘job done…but not very convincingly’. The Dons returned from Georgia with an away goal advantage in their 2nd round UEFA Europa League qualifying tie, after a frankly mediocre display.
While the 1-1 draw in the Georgian capital means the Dons are favourites to go through this Thursday, they will probably have to improve on last week’s performance to ensure qualification for the next round. Although manager Derek McInnes may justifiably point to the Georgian heat, and more importantly the blend of new signings, injuries and players forced into unfamiliar positions as factors to be considered in explaining the underwhelming display, fans may also be justified in voicing concerns over the Pittodrie club’s inability to keep possession and create chances.
Defensive injury crisis
When added to the growing defensive injury crisis, and the inability to see off a weak Finnish side in the previous round far earlier than was eventually managed, there is a slight but growing anxiety surrounded this tie for the Pittodrie faithful. One goal for the Georgians in Scotland would be enough to completely change the tie. McInnes will be hoping for an early goal to settle the nerves and a repeat of the home performance of the first 80 minutes of the previous round.
The Dons were highly impressive three weeks ago against the Finns, with their performance meriting far more than the two-goal lead they enjoyed up until injury time. However, poor finishing and tired legs saw the Dons retreat into their shell in the closing stages, leading to an away goal and a completely different tie in Lapland a week later. With two more competitive games under their belt, tiredness should be far less of a problem this time around. However, the Dons are this time up against a frankly better side, and cannot afford any defensive lapses.
Additionally, an early-season defensive crisis has done little to help their cause. With new left-back Greg Leigh injured in pre-season, the Dons have also lost centre-backs Ash Taylor and Michael Devlin to knocks. While veteran Andrew Considine can provide more than adequate cover to partner Scott McKenna, it may also mean Jon Gallagher moving to right-back. While the Irishman is known for his ability to play in several positions, it may mean sacrificing the surging forward runs and midfield interceptions which characterised his man of the man debut against RoPS Rovaniemi.
Elsewhere for Aberdeen, McInnes will be grateful to have new signings Funso Ojo and Craig Bryson available. The pairing are almost certain to be regular starters this season, but are currently lacking in match practice and fitness, and may not show their full potential. Once again the Dons may look to Lewis Ferguson to provide a steady hand in the middle of the park. Despite still being a teenager, the former Hamilton player’s physical and mental maturity - as well as his penchant for big game goals and performances - means he can almost be regarded as a senior player for the Dons.
Player to watch: Sam Cosgrove
Striker Sam Cosgrove is in the highly unusual position of coming under increasing criticism from fans and the media, despite having scored in all three Europa League ties this season. However, this situation is perhaps not as bizarre as it seems. Cosgrove’s three goals have consisted of two penalties and a deflected close-range sclaff. He has also been profligate in front of goal, passing up several decent chances to kill off the tie in both legs against RoPS, while doing little to impress from open play last week in Georgia.
Dons’ supporters are already questioning why former Manchester United forward James Wilson remains on the bench when Cosgrove proves to be largely ineffective from open play. The giant striker will have to up his game sooner rather than later.
The football atmosphere will give us greater inspiration
For Chikhura, 1st leg goalscorer Giorgi Koripadze yesterday revealed he was looking forward to the trip to Pittodrie. With a near full house expected - and with Dons’ supporters organising a singing section in the South Stand to boost the noise levels and atmosphere - Koripadze told the Evening Express that “We are not afraid of the fact that the Aberdeen stadium will be full. On the contrary, the full stadium and the football atmosphere will give us greater inspiration and motivation to do as much as possible and get to the next level.”
While the Georgians have no great European pedigree, they saw off Beitar Jerusalem last season, before narrowly going out to perennial conqueror of Scottish clubs Maribor. While Aberdeen are justifiably favourites to progress, Chikhura may well also be quietly confident.