ABERDEEN might have tumbled out of the Europa League against illustrious opposition three days before but they are staking a powerful claim for a repeat adventure in next season’s tournament.

Marley Watkins’ first goal in his eighth appearance for the Dons came at the Dingwall ground where, by coincidence, he broke his Inverness Caley Thistle duck in a Highland derby

win on February 25, 2014. The header, which came just before the break after a quite brilliant Jonny Hayes’ cross, sent the visitors in at half time with a well-deserved lead

having had a series of chances.

County’s hopes of recovery imploded on the hour mark as Iain Vigurs saw red for a penalty-box trip on Ross McCrorie with Lewis Ferguson slotting home from the spot. Ferguson

then added a third, another penalty. The victory took Derek McInnes’ side to within two points of third-placed Hibs, with two games in hand.

Watkins, at 29, is yet to manage a double figure goalscoring return in a career that includes time at Bristol City, Barnsley and Inverness, but McInnes believes this could be the campaign.

“I’m really pleased for Marley. It is important for him,” his boss said. “He’s never throughout his career been a guy who scored 15 or 20 goals, but he’s always contributed as an

important team player. He is capable I think, in this team, to get well into double figures.”

McInnes was very satisfied with his team’s work.

“I was so pleased with the fitness of the team,” he said. “Hats off to the players, they were outstanding.”

Aberdeen’s admirable Europa League tilt at Sporting Lisbon on Thursday had drawn plaudits after a narrow defeat. But the big question before kick-off was whether those endeavours would take the edge off energy levels as the team sought domestic recovery after a shock 3-0 defeat at home to Motherwell.

McInnes, though, saw no need to make sweeping changes from the Portuguese trip, with only the fresher legs of Niall McGinn replacing benched Shay Logan, while Dylan McGeoch dropped out for Scott Wright.

After a restorative victory away to St Johnstone last time out, home manager Stuart Kettlewell made just one enforced change with Keith Watson taking over from the injured Connor Randall at right-back.

The Dons opened with aggressive intent, creating five chances in the opening 10 minutes.

Inside the first minute, Niall McGinn lifted a shot over the bar from a good position. McGinn was then sent racing through on the left and his low cut-back had Scott Wright clattering a strike off the right- hand post and the visitors continued to apply more pressure.

When the goal finally came three minutes before the break, it was little surprise. It took a wonderful, instinctive swipe of the left boot from Hayes, 20 yards out on the far left, to catch the home defence napping. Watkins met it with a firm header eight yards out.

County were in trouble on the hour mark. A sweeping Dons attack saw Watkins thread forward a pass and home captain Vigurs’ trip on McCrorie in the penalty area earned him a straight red card. Ferguson calmly stroked the spot-kick into the bottom left corner with Ross Laidlaw sent the wrong way.

Any hope of a home recovery was snuffed out after 76 minutes when Hayes’ cross was handled in the area by young defender Josh Reid. Ferguson duly beat Laidlaw again.

“It’s not the result or performance we were after,” Kettlewell said as his team slipped to seventh in the table on goal difference. “Aberdeen were better than us from the first minute to the last.”