- Aberdeen’s third win on the opening weekend in the last 14 years
- Kenny McLean scores third goal of the campaign after striking twice in Europe
- United lost all six pre-season games and have won just four times since February
- The Tangerines have not won back-to-back matches against Aberdeen since 2008
- Dons exact revenge for 3-0 defeat to United in first league game of last season
KENNY McLean’s late header gave Aberdeen a hard-fought victory in their Scottish Premiership opener at north-east rivals Dundee United.
The midfielder stooped to guide substitute David Goodwillie’s cross over United’s debutant keeper Luis Zwick eight minutes from time.
United came the closest to breaking the deadlock in a tame first half when Mario Bilate was denied one-on-one by Dons stopper Danny Ward.
Aberdeen were the better side after the break with Andy Considine’s effort cleared off the goalline by United skipper Ryan McGowan.
However, McLean’s third goal of the campaign gave the Dons a fourth win in their last five trips to Tannadice – where their title tilt was officially ended in May as last season’s runners-up finished 17 points behind champions Celtic to record their best league finish since 1993-94.
Derek McInnes’s side arrived back from Uefa’s longest journey of 4,800 miles to Kazakhstan on Friday in the Europa League yet there were few signs of tiredness from having five competitive games already this term as the Dons grew stronger as the game wore on.
United began last term with a convincing 3-0 win in the ‘New Firm’ derby at Pittodrie before a stark decline following the January departures of Gary Mackay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong to Celtic brought just three wins in their final 15 league games as they finished fifth.
Despite a resolute performance, Jackie McNamara’s Tangerines – who also lost 16-goal top scorer Nadir Ciftci to the Hoops amid a summer rebuilding process – could not start what is likely to be a challenging and transitional season ahead with a positive result.
United fielded three debutants in 21-year-old German keeper Zwick and defenders Coll Donaldson and Mark Durnan – summer recruits from QPR and Queen of the South respectively – while Bilate was preferred to spearhead the attack.
Aberdeen made four changes from their 2-1 defeat to Kairat Almaty with McLean, Considine, Adam Rooney and Cammy Smith earning recalls as Goodwillie, new captain Ryan Jack, Peter Pawlett and Niall McGinn dropped to the bench.
The 3,000 travelling Dons supporters packed the away end at Tannadice and contributed to an electric atmosphere which inspired a lively opening on the field.
United were first to seriously threaten when Chris Erskine’s fierce 22-yard drive was kept out by on-loan Liverpool keeper Ward after 16 minutes.
At the other end, Dons forward Smith turned smartly away from John Rankin before advancing towards goal but his shot was fired straight into the midriff of Zwick – a replacement for the departed Radoslaw Cierzniak.
Although the contest was keenly-fought and evenly-matched for long periods, both managers will be disappointed with the set-piece delivery with Aberdeen in particular wasting a number of dead-ball situations.
A better delivery by Willo Flood on the half-hour created a half-chance for last season’s leading scorer in Scotland but 28-goal striker Rooney could not add to the three goals in his previous four outings against United as he hooked over Ash Taylor’s flick-on from close range.
The best opportunity of the opening 45 minutes came on the stroke of half-time when Paul Quinn’s scuffed clearance fell to Bilate but the United striker – who scored only twice in his debut season last year – failed in his attempt to lift the ball over the onrushing Ward.
It was the 24-year-old’s final action before giving way to Croatian frontman Darko Bodul – who joined from Austrian Bundesliga outfit Rheindorf Altach last month – at the interval.
The second period took a while to ignite with the distinct lack of quality in possession and urgency going forward evidently irking Dons boss McInnes – a former Dundee United captain who spent three years as a Tangerines player.
Aberdeen’s patient approach only troubled a well-organised United occasionally as Jonny Hayes burst into the box and slashed wide when opting not to cross to better-placed team-mates.
Seeking a much-needed spark, both sides made changes just after the hour mark with ex-Arbroath striker Simon Murray making his competitive United bow and McGinn replacing Smith for the Dons.
United almost found the breakthrough when Durnan glanced on Blair Spittal’s free-kick but Ward scrambled low to push his header around the post.
The Dons, though, continued to knock on the door with former United striker Goodwillie – who replaced Hayes midway through the half – unsuccessful in his penalty claims to referee Kevin Clancy after being nudged over in the box by McGowan.
McGowan then took up an intelligent position to clear a weak Considine sidefooter off the line after Zwick landed on the deck when attempting to punch Shaleum Logan’s right-wing cross.
But just when a first goalless draw between the European hopefuls since 1998 was on the cards – the decisive moment that the visitors’ unrelenting pressure warranted came in unorthodox fashion when McLean’s looping header caught out Zwick from Goodwillie’s aimless delivery.
It was another important contribution for the midfielder signed from St Mirren in January after his priceless away strike in mid-Asia on Thursday which kept alive the Dons’ hopes of reaching the Europa League play-off round.
Their undivided attention can now switch to the must-win second-leg against the Kazakh side at Pittodrie on Thursday evening and preparations have seemingly already begun with many Dons players returning to the field after the final whistle to go through a warm-down.
Dundee United – who beat Aberdeen in three of their five meetings last season including the League Cup semi-final – offered little in response in the closing stages as they suffered a first opening-day defeat in seven years.
Dundee United 0-1 Aberdeen
“Dundee United boss Jackie McNamara felt his side were unlucky to lose but Aberdeen were the more adventurous side and maintained the pressure until eventually they were rewarded. The tempo might not have been what an opening league game is expected to have and at times there was a pre-season feel to it but there was still plenty of intrigue and both sets of fans will have been happy enough with what they saw. The strength in depth in the Dons squad allowed Derek McInnes to leave some key players on the bench and the changes he made brought a freshness to the side. United can take positives in that they created chances and had set-piece opportunities – which could have been capitalised upon if their delivery was better. John Souttar looked comfortable in his defensive midfield role and they enjoyed some neat passages of play with the youthful exuberance running through the side showing they can handle expectations this term. The way Aberdeen played in the wake of arriving back from Kazakhstan, going right until the end, securing the result in a tricky match away from home and seeing out the closing stages can be interpreted as a hallmark of champions. Time will tell if it is a sign of things to come and whether the Dons can build on last year’s outstanding efforts. For United, with Dundee and Celtic to come, they will be looking to get off the mark at Motherwell next week.”
Substitutes: Bodul (on for Bilate 45′), Murray (on for Telfer 62′), Sneidjer (on for Rankin 72′).
Booked: Donaldson (40′), Durnan (90+2′)
Substitutes: McGinn (on for Smith 62′), Goodwillie (on for Hayes 68′), Jack (on for Considine 78′).
Booked: Considine (43′)
Goals: McLean (82′)
Referee: Kevin Clancy (Scotland) – 9/10