The Scottish League Cup semi-final draw takes place at Hampden today and incredibly Aberdeen are in it.
What is incredible about that is they played 77 of the 90 minutes at Motherwell with 10 men and spent what felt like 90% of it pinned on the ropes. Everything pointed to them buckling, but their defending was outstanding. After winning every ball in their own penalty area they went upfield in the final minutes and won a priceless one at the other end, too. With only seven minutes left Andrew Considine rammed home a header from a corner. Motherwell were a burst balloon. Jonny Hayes iced the cake in stoppage time.
Stuart McCall, the Motherwell manager, said referee John Beaton had apologised to him for wrongly disallowing an early John Sutton header for offside. Sympathy was natural, it was a game-changing moment and Sutton was clearly onside. After that, though, and for all their domination of the ball, they showed far too little invention and no penetration.
Derek McInnes, the Aberdeen manager, fought to keep the smile off his face. "Everything was stacked against us. We showed organisation, guts, character, everything you need to win the game, but the biggest thing was belief. We had a bunch of boys not prepared to accept anything other than us being in the semi-final."
He said expectation can "choke" the club at times, but he hasn't seen anything yet. Aberdeen fans know there will never be a better chance to end their 18-year wait for a trophy.
Joe Shaugnessy had been sent off for a brainless challenge in the 13th minute. He threw himself into a tackle on Zaine Francis-Angol in an area miles from goal where there was no threat or need to do so. McInnes responded by taking off Calvin Zola, putting Niall McGinn up front, and bringing on Considine to go three at the back. It was a shrewd piece of management, knowing Motherwell would likely get in plenty of crosses. Even that 11 did not make it to half-time, though, as Clark Robertson landed heavily, suffering cartilage damage which will rule him out for the foreseeable future.
In a game between two evenly matched teams - a point separates them in the SPFL Premiership - a red card was certain to have a profound impact. The play soon settled into a rhythm of Motherwell possession and gentle pressure, being repelled by a generally comfortable and untroubled Aberdeen defence. In what degenerated into an evening of lumpen, uninspired pressure, Motherwell actually came closest to scoring before Shaughnessy went off, when Sutton chipped the ball over Jamie Langfield into the net. Beaton decided he was offside, although a delay in getting the message across hinted at uncertainty. But after that, when they had an extra man, the hosts hardly ever got in behind Aberdeen's diligent defending. They were reduced to taking poor pot shots from outside the area or floating in one aimless cross after another, all to a soundtrack of slowly mounting irritation from their crowd.
For most of the night Aberdeen could not keep possession well enough to give themselves a breather. Whenever they got the ball, they gave it away again and were back on the defensive. Only near half-time did they get some encouragement when goalkeeper Gunnar Nielsen fumbled a Hayes cross in the goalmouth and Shaun Hutchinson had to bale him out. Then Hutchinson was at fault, being dispossessed by McGinn who had a sight of goal before Stephen McManus raced across to cover.
Motherwell's pressure intensified in the second half. More poor passes and poor deliveries. When they did get crosses into the box Considine, Russell Anderson or Mark Reynolds were always on the end of them to thump a header away. The three of them were superb. An hour had gone by the time Motherwell finally opened Aberdeen up but Stuart Carswell smashed a shot straight at Langfield. Hutchinson finally won an aerial ball in the Aberdeen box but smashed his header off the bar.
Aberdeen were so far back on the ropes the idea of them scoring was almost unimaginable. But they did. After a breakaway in which Peter Pawlett had a shot saved, Vernon's rebound was blocked for a corner. Hayes swung it in and there was Considine winning his umpteenth header of the night, this time hard and clean into the net at the back post. Motherwell wilted. They had punched themselves out and they knew it. After some ragged, desperate attempts to push for an equaliser they were exposed again as Aberdeen, suddenly buoyant, opened them up. Vernon sprung Motherwell's back line to put Hayes through. His shot rammed high into the net at the visitors' end. He rushed to the fans, and they surged to the front of the stand to bury him in celebration.