JOHN HUGHES is wary of the "wounded animal" that will arrive in the Highland capital tonight in the shape of Aberdeen but says his Inverness Caledonian Thistle side are ready to make a final assault on a Europa League place after a fortnight's respite from action.
It is, of course, the Pittodrie team's first match since their William Hill Scottish Cup semi-final defeat to St Johnstone. The Inverness manager is well aware how painful such a loss can be, his own team having been beaten in the League Cup final by tonight's opponents only a month ago.
That match formed part of a run of 14 games in seven weeks for Hughes's team but the batteries have been recharged, their last outing having been the Highland derby victory over Ross County exactly two weeks ago.
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Hughes said: "Aberdeen will be hurting after St Johnstone came back to beat them in the semi-final. We had the experience of losing a cup final not long ago, so we know all about it. You are always wary of the wounded animal. But if the game is anything like they have been between the two clubs, it should be a cracker."
Inverness will have to rely on others to slip up in terms of European qualification but some observers felt they turned a corner in the win in Dingwall. The return to the 4-2-3-1 shape that spawned a spate of early season victories looked to have restored their attacking potency. They will, though, be without captain Richie Foran who has been ruled out for the rest of the season after knee surgery. "We're seeing a lot of the stuff we're doing on the training pitch come to fruition," Hughes said. "We're trying to stimulate them and capture their imagination - and what a response we've had.
"It was important we had that break. Everyone is fine now apart from Richie Foran and it's all to play for. We are focused on trying to win that European spot. If we get it, it would be the first time in the club's history."
Billy McKay agreed, the Inverness striker saying: "It would be a really fantastic achievement for the club, and for us as players. We haven't managed to win that first trophy but Europe would be a tangible prize.
"We went so close last season and it has been a target for us again this time around. We're not as high up as we would like to be at the moment but we're going to keep pushing."
The striker scored for only the second time in 10 games against Ross County. McKay said: "It was probably the most chances I've had for a long time. We were back to playing good, attacking football again and it was a great way to finish before the split."
Europe is more firmly on Aberdeen's agenda and Willo Flood hopes tonight's game will take the Pittodrie side a step closer to guaranteeing their involvement, even though that would disrupt his summer plans, which include moving home and taking a Scottish FA coaching course.
The side that finishes second in the SPFL Premiership - the slot Aberdeen currently occupy - will enter Europa League qualifying at the second stage on July 17 while the team that finish third will be in action two weeks before that.
Flood said: "I'm doing my A-licence at the end of the season, so I might have to ask Donald Park [leader of the SFA coaching course] for some time off. That's May 18-26 and I'm moving house too, so it won't be much of a summer if we get into Europe."
But that is exactly what Flood wants, especially as he and his team-mates seek to make amends to the 16,000 supporters who followed them to last weekend's semi-final.
Aberdeen are three points ahead of Motherwell, who are third, with five games remaining and Flood said: "Against the top six teams we have been very good. We want to consolidate second place and playing on a Friday night can help you put pressure on the teams around you who'll be in action the following day."
Suspension will keep Flood's midfield partner, Ryan Jack, out of the team which will mean a probable opening for Cammy Smith or Nicky Low. Derek McInnes, the Aberdeen manager, has stressed to his players that they must not dwell on the semi-final defeat as they bid to end the season strongly.
"We can't affect what's happened but we can affect what's in front of us," he said. "We're out of the cup now so we have to focus on second place in the league.
"That might not have been the aim at the start of the season because you never know how things are going to be. But with the way we've played and with five games to go, that's there for us to achieve."