Aberdeen are making the long journey home from Asia this evening, the longest distance travelled by a team playing in Europe, with a vital away goal and still have a great chance of continuing their Europa League adventure despite a 2-1 defeat to FC Kairat. The Dons put in another excellent performance in Kazakhstan. Despite going 2-0 down after 22 minutes to two very good strikes, the Dons dug deep against a very good side and dominated possession for spells in the first half and the for parts of the second period. They got their rewards when substitute Kenny McLean thumped the ball home on 69 minutes. As the game became stretched in the closing stages the Dons had chances to grab a second but also required Danny Ward to make a number of top class saves and the home side rattled the bar in injury time. The tie is very nicely set up for next Thursday's second leg at Pittodrie.
Despite taking HNK Rijeka's seeding for this round there was a real recognition that this would be another tough tie. The bookies made Kairat favourites for the match which was understandable given that they sit at the top of the Kazakh league table. Kairat's season is well underway having already played 22 matches conceding just 14 goals. The home side have been prolific in front of goal too scoring 44 goals but would be without their top goal scorer for this match, Gerard Gohou. The Ivorian striker has already netted 18 league goals this season and has also been on form in the Europa League scoring 3 goals in 4 matches. Without him in the side Kairat were undoubtedly weaker but still had plenty of quality to cause The Dons problems. Djordje Despotovic looked like carrying the main attacking threat after getting his name on the score sheet twice in Almaty's last match.
After such an outstanding performance in the last European away match against HNK Rijeka it was little surprise that Derek McInnes chose to go with the same side for this match in Almaty. The Dons also had to deal with the unusual challenge of dealing with the five hour time difference that came with the longest ever journey for a Scottish club in Europe. Ward, who was instrumental in helping Aberdeen to a clean sheet in Croatia, retained his place between the sticks. Hayes and Logan were tasked with providing the width again with a back three of Quinn, Considine and Taylor out to protect Ward. In midfield Jack paired up with Shinnie just in front of the defence, their ability to keep hold of the ball would no doubt provide crucial with the home side again expected to dominate possession. Pawlett and McGinn started just in front of them and would carry a lot of defensive responsibility in addition to having to support Goodwillie in attack. The striker has seemed to enjoy a new lease of life since the start of the season but had another hard shift in front of him in Almaty. Incredibly almost 100 Aberdeen fans made the journey from all over the globe. The Red Army occupied a corner of the stadium in what was almost a capacity crowd. The home crowd perhaps lacked the co-ordination of Rijeka's Armada but there was still a great atmosphere and a real sense of occasion inside the ground as kick-off approached.
As is to be expected in Europe the home side started with a high tempo and moved the ball about well as Aberdeen tried to find their feet. After 7 minutes a loose ball from Goodwillie allowed Tymoschuk to intercept from a throw in, the Ukrainian played in Despotovic who was brought down by Quinn 25 yards goal. The Serbian decided to hit the free-kick but thankfully the wall did it's job. Up the other end Goodwillie tested Plotnikov in the Kairat goal with a curling strike from outside the area but in the end it was a comfortable save for the keeper. After 13 minutes the home side were in front after unpicking The Dons defence with a sublime passing move. Kairat waited for the right moment before Bakayev sped on to the end of a lay-off just inside the box before firing past Ward. In the 20th minute Aberdeen won possession in midfield and set off on the counter-attack with Logan playing a ball down the channel for McGinn, Niall chose to float in a cross to the back post for Hayes who was unable to get over the header under pressure from a Kairat defender. In the 22nd minute The Dons invited the captain Islamkhan to shoot from 35 yards and he sent an unstoppable strike past Ward. It was a bitter blow for Aberdeen who had just looked as if they were beginning to cause some problems of their own with the pace of Hayes, Pawlett and McGinn.
With just a quarter of the game gone The Dons had been undone by two sublime goals but had shown that they were capable of grabbing an all-important away goal, that now had to be the aim. In the 26th minute the Kairat keeper was put under some pressure when McGinn fired in a free-kick from a wide area. Plotnikov flapped at the cross and conceded a corner but The Dons must have taken some encouragement from his attempt to deal with the initial cross. The home side had certainly been pretty aggressive with their pressing out of possession so there was every chance that The Dons would get the chance to test the keeper further from set-piece situations as the match progressed. After half an hour a free-kick was whipped into the Kairat area from deep and eventually fell to Taylor at the edge of the area, he attempted to get the ball back towards goal and there was a claim for handball but nothing was given.
In the 33rd minute Tymoschuk, inspired by Islamkhan's effort had a go from 35 yards but his effort was deflected wide. Ward got up well to claim the corner and take any pressure off The Dons. After 38 minutes McGinn took up another great position on the right of the box, his low cross was partially cleared before the ball rebounded off Pawlett and just wide of the post. The Dons followed that up with another attack as Considine got on the end of a cross from Logan, his defender had the sting taken out of it by a deflection and was easy for the keeper to gather. Considine was now getting further forward with Hayes pushing on as The Dons looked for an away goal. Some trickery from the Brazilian playmaker Barboza got the crowd excited again and created an opening for Kairat but he was forced wide enough to see a shot deflected wide. There was still time for Kairat to have one more attack before half-time as Islamkhan played in Despotovic who was foiled by an excellent diving challenge. The openings were there for The Dons and they would have had plenty of encouragement going into the second half, shortly before the half-time whistle Plotnikov fumbled another cross and certainly looked like a weak point that could be exploited.
On the balance of play Aberdeen probably felt unfortunate to be behind by two goals but both goals were of real quality and would have been difficult for most sides to do anything about.
Rooney replaced Pawlett at half-time and joined Goodwillie up front. Pawlett had looked sharp at times in the first half but with The Dons chasing a goal he was sacrificed for last season's top scorer with it now looking likely that Aberdeen would adopt a more direct style of play. With a two goal lead Kairat adopted a deeper position and surrendered most of the possession at the start of the second half which offered the visitors the chance to move the ball around without really threatening in the final third. The jeers rang out around the stadium as Aberdeen continued to dominate possession, despite the dominance the only time that Plotnikov had to touch the ball in the first 10 minutes was when a cross from Hayes was deflected towards his goal. In the 58th minute Hayes won a corner which was worked short before being floated into the box, a deflection took it away from Taylor before his near post cross was cleared by Tymoschuk.
Up the other end it looked like Kairat were on their way to a third when Barboza showed some great skill to go past Taylor and into the box, Ward had to be at his best to stop his powerful strike from 10 yards. The goalie got a good glove to the ball to deflect it over the bar. The Brazilian was obviously a favourite of the fans and looked capable of producing the type of magic that could cut any defence open. After 64 minutes the Brazilian chose to play in one of his teammates but had to watch on as the ball was dragged wide of the post. Ward narrowed the angle but it was a real opportunity once again for Kairat.
McLean replaced Goodwillie as The Dons looked to gain a bit more control of the game after a shaky 10 minute spell. The former St Mirren man made an immediate impact as he got on the end of a deflected cut-back from McGinn and made no mistake to fire the ball past Plotnikov from 12 yards. Hayes had done well initially to get down the line and find McGinn but McLean was there to make it count.
Spurred on by that goal Hayes tore the defence apart with another driving run but was this time unable to find a red shirt with the cross. Kairat burst up the other end in the 71st minute and looked to have won back a two goal lead but despite the stadium goal music playing the powerful strike from Lunin only found the side of the net. It was a let off for Aberdeen but meant that they had a real foundation to build on going into the final 20 minutes of the match. The home side started to dominate possession again as they went in search of a third goal, at this stage taking a 2-1 defeat and an away goal back to Pittodrie looked like a good result. With 10 minutes remaining the ball fell for Serginho just outside the area but his strike ended up going well over the bar.
In the 83rd minute Jack committed a foul on Serginho 25 yards from goal who grabbed the ball with his sights set on goal. The Brazilian looked to have found the back of the net with Ward at full stretch but his curling effort ended up just over the bar. With just over 5 minutes of normal time remaining Robson replaced Quinn. The change meant that Considine went into the middle of defence alongside Taylor with Shinnie at left back. Robson's first act was to commit a foul 35 yards from goal with Kairat immediately eyeing up another direct strike at goal. Serginho instead chose to backheel the ball to Barboza who took the strike at goal which ended up well over the bar.
Kairat were still looking for a third goal and had the quality around the box to make that a real possibility. However, The Dons also have plenty of quality going forward and after McGinn got on the end of a flick on from Rooney he played a tempting ball across goal, unfortunately McLean was unable to shake off his marker and prodded wide under pressure. As the match entered stoppage time Serginho curled another great strike towards the back post but Ward done well to tip it round the post. From the corner Kairat hit the bar and at the end of the match 2-1 felt like a really good result for The Dons.
Aberdeen now face a trip to Tannadice on Sunday before resuming this tie at Pittodrie next Thursday night. Kairat showed their quality on the night but Derek McInnes will have seen enough from his side to know that The Dons have a real chance of overturning the deficit at Pittodrie.
Kairat Almaty Teamsheet
Aberdeen Teamsheet Ward
.Unused Subs: Brown, Storie, Wright, Smith.
Venue: Central Stadium, Almaty, Kazakhstan
Referee: Tamás Bognar, Hungary