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'It's very much game on . . . it's a tie that's there to be won'

A GAME which didn't offer a goal and didn't provide any clues.

Pawlett wins one of a number of free-kicks that Aberdeen were unable to capitalise on. Picture: SNS
Pawlett wins one of a number of free-kicks that Aberdeen were unable to capitalise on. Picture: SNS

Aberdeen and Groningen are both in today's draw for the Europa League third qualifying round and 90 minutes at Pittodrie offered no hints about which of them will actually progress to play in it. Aberdeen will play in the Netherlands next Thursday with no lead from their home leg, but no away goal conceded either. The tie remains tight and hard to call. There couldn't have been a soul in the 16,523 crowd last night who could call it with any confidence.

"I can understand why everyone would have them as favourites now," said Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes later. He was unconcerned about that. "I think they were favourites before the tie. But we have always felt we could win this. Nothing has changed that. We always knew it would be two ties and two performances that would decide it. We are more than capable of going over there and scoring."

Third in the SPFL Premiership against seventh in the Dutch Eredivisie. Sound like a meeting of equals? Aberdeen had been entitled to their confidence before facing Daugava Riga in the first round but it was immediately clear that Groningen would be a far stiffer proposition. Groningen played to an average home crowd of almost 20,000 last season and finished their campaign with a 10-game unbeaten run which got them into Europe via play-offs.

They were rustier than Aberdeen, though, having not had to play in the previous round. Aberdeen and Groningen play their opening league fixtures within 24 hours of each other next month but it was clear that the home side were ahead in all-round fitness. After an anxious opening few minutes in which the Dutch seemed to settle instantly and denied Aberdeen much of the ball, McInnes's team eased themselves into the play and had the best of the first half chances.

Their danger nearly always came through Peter Pawlett. He had been injured in the 5-0 Pittodrie rout of Daugava and missed the second leg. He returned in a slightly unfamiliar position, playing wide on the left of a 4-1-4-1, but soon he was stretching his legs with runs which had right-back Hans Hateboer all over the place. Pawlett's change of pace had him flummoxed more than once although there was not enough to show for the resulting crosses and cutbacks. One Pawlett shot forced a save and there was a burst which allowed Niall McGinn the chance to unload another effort, also blocked by the goalkeeper.

Mostly it was all cautious, wary, respectful. The stands were nervous when Groningen began with plenty of tidy football around midfield, and grateful that there was so little to show for it. This club has had Arjen Robben and Luis Suarez on their books in the past but there is no-one remotely in that class now. Not until a couple of minutes before half-time did they truly threaten, when Hateboer exposed Johnny Hayes at left-back and fired a dangerous cross into the goalmouth. Centre-forward Danny Hoesen should have scored but his flicked attempt couldn't beat Jamie Langfield. Still, Pittodrie gulped.

Aberdeen stepped up the tempo after half-time. They pressed well and harried the Dutch into fouls which brought a quick trio of bookings. There was rising anticipation as Aberdeen won free-kicks in promising positions, but all of them were poor.

Groningen, their play becoming more ragged as the game wore on, then mounted some counter attacks and Rasmus Lindgren made Langfield work to stop a skipping long-range shot. Groningen's passing and control became ragged but when Jarchinio Antonia hared after a ball into the corner Aberdeen were exposed and his cutback was thrashed into the side netting by Dino Islamovic.

Fourteen minutes from time David Goodwillie came on for his debut, ending an Adam Rooney shift which involved plenty of effort but little menace.

"It would be easy to go with two strikers and go for it but I didn't think we were in that position where we needed to do that at this moment," said McInnes. "Groningen will be pleased with their work. 0-0 is not a bad result for them. But it's also not a bad result for us. It was cat and mouse, there was a healthy respect between the teams, we kept a lot of their better players quiet and they didn't effect the game. Both teams will be satisfied without jumping through hoops about the result. I think they will expect to beat us in Groningen and we might just have a wee bit more space to work in the forward areas. It's very much game on from our point of view. It's a tie that's there to be won."

The Groningen coach Erwin van de Looi had the same combination of respect and optimism. "I expected a tough game," he said. "I have mixed feelings. I am happy that we didn't concede a goal but unhappy that we didn't score one. We weren't good enough up front so we didn't deserve a goal. But Aberdeen defended very well. It will be a tougher game in Groningen. We have a noisy crowd."

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