After their convincing win over Chikhura Sachkere, Aberdeen travel to the Adriatic coast to face a tougher challenge in Igor Biscan’s Rijeka side. Aberdeen famously defeated Rijeka 5-2 on aggregate in the Second Qualifying Round in 2015, possibly the peak of their European performance under Derek McInnes. Rijeka have only two survivors of that 2015 tie with the squad compared to Aberdeen’s four but have, since that last tie, appeared in the Europa League group stage, even downing AC Milan at Rujevica.
Fans will be familiar with Rijeka’s manager, the former Liverpool and Croatia midfielder Igor Biscan, from his playing days but he has already carved an impressive managerial CV. Now in his fourth season as a manager, he has managed to win silverware every season so far including the Croatian Cup last season and a miraculous league win while at Olimpija Ljubljana. As he enters his first full season at Rijeka, reinforcing that impressive record will be at the front of his mind.
Aberdeen’s foremost issue will be around the mental state of Scott McKenna, who handed in a transfer request in the face of interest from England. With the English window closing on the day of the Rijeka game and McKenna one of only two fit central defenders, Aberdeen will be hoping that the issue does not hinder McKenna’s preparation or performance. Aside from that, Craig Bryson is still working his way back to fitness but the rest of the squad has a clean bill of health after the win against Hearts.
Rijeka similarly have few injury concerns. Striker Jakov Puljic will definitely miss the first leg and captain Alexander Gorgon is close to making a return, but will likely be only in the second leg. Petar Mamic will definitely miss out but, otherwise, Rijeka came out of their league game with Slaven Koprivnica with no injury concerns.
Aberdeen will likely be unchanged from their win over Hearts with in-form Sam Cosgrove leading the line while Rijeka’s main dilemma will be who plays left-back and where Zoran Kvrzic fits in.
Lewis, Leigh, Considine, McKenna, Logan, Ojo, Ferguson, Gallagher, Hedges, McGinn, Cosgrove
Prskalo, Raspopovic, Zuparic, Puncec, Tomecak, Lepinjica, Pavicic, Halilovic, Muric, Kvrzic, Colak
Key Clash: Leigh and Ojo vs Muric and Halilovic
Aberdeen’s defensive unit have not yet had the sort of test that they will be presented with from Rijeka and Muric and Halilovic will be the chief dangers. Tibor Halilovic has impressed since joining the club in the winter and offers a serious threat from distance which Funso Ojo, acting as the anchor to the Dons midfield, will have to take care to track when either driving from midfield or picking up on second balls.
But more key to Rijeka will be the role of former Ajax starlet Robert Muric. Similarly to Halilovic, he joined Rijeka during the Croatian winter break and has been regularly on the scoresheet. While his application is sometimes questionable, his ability with the ball at his feet is sometimes breathtaking, as evidenced by beating five players on his way to his first goal against Varazdin on opening day. Greg Leigh has a tough task ahead of him to keep Muric quiet and keep Muric away from getting the opportunity to run at the centre of defence. Both Ojo and Leigh will have to be on top form to keep Aberdeen’s defence from being exposed by Rijeka’s myriad threats.
What the managers have said
Derek McInnes has, of course, been wrapped up as much in the hullabaloo around Scott McKenna as he has been in the game but told that Press and Journal that, compared to four years ago, “This is a different team, different players and a different manager. We’ve had them watched; they’re a bit more physical, rather than technical.”
Igor Biscan was honest during his press conference to Novi List “We are facing a very difficult and demanding match… ...You will see a solid, aggressive and disciplined team with a couple of individuals who can cause a lot of problems. Sam Cosgrove stands out as he is in good form and causes trouble in the defence,” before adding “I get the impression that the public is trying to portray Aberdeen as a club we should be favourites against but you will see that this is not so.”