This Europa League tie left you with a distinct feeling of ‘what if?’
Ten-man Aberdeen were eliminated 4-0 on aggregate after a 2-0 defeat to Rijeka in the second leg at Pittodrie last night.
It’s the fifth time in six seasons the Dons have fallen at the third qualifying round stage.
Although both teams have changed a great deal from four years ago, that the Reds had emphatically beaten Rijeka 5-2 on aggregate a round earlier in 2015 made this feel like a winnable tie.
There is not the daylight between the sides that the aggregate score suggests, but over both legs Rijeka were superior in the key moments and ruthlessly punished Aberdeen’s mistakes.
In the first leg Shay Logan’s needless penalty concession was gratefully received by Antonio Colak and a quality finish from Robert Muric late on in Croatia gave Rijeka the upper hand.
It was never going to be easy for Derek McInnes’ men to overturn the deficit – the Reds have only managed it once before in Europe and that was in March 1984 against Ujpest of Hungary when Sir Alex Ferguson’s team were defending the European Cup Winners’ Cup.
But two moments in the first half decided this tie and extinguished hopes of a famous comeback.
A clinical counter-attack finished off by Stjepan Loncar on 10 minutes and Funso Ojo’s over-enthusiasm getting the better of him resulting in his sending off for two yellow cards 10 minutes later.
McInnes made four changes from Sunday’s 1-0 defeat to St Mirren. Sam Cosgrove, Niall McGinn, Jon Gallagher and Logan returned with Curtis Main, Scott Wright, Connor McLennan and Zak Vyner on the bench.
An early goal was what the Red Army were hoping for – but it arrived at the wrong end on 10 minutes.
The Croatians broke quickly from a Dons corner with Maxwell Acosty burrowing down the right, he laid the ball back for Ivan Lepinjica and the midfielder’s teasing cross was flicked beyond Joe Lewis by LONCAR, who ghosted in at the front post.
When it mattered it was another moment of quality incisive attacking play – a fine cross and deft finish to match.
After that Rijeka were content to sit deep in defence and attempt to break at speed on the counter-attack.
Things got worse for the Dons in the 20th minute as they were reduced to 10 men.
Ojo had been booked for a foul on Acosty after only six minutes and then a poor touch meant he tripped Luka Capan with Austrian referee Harald Lechner quick to show the second yellow card and then a red.
From the moment Ojo walked up the tunnel any hope of salvaging the tie was gone.
In the 32nd minute Rijeka doubled their lead from another breakaway from a McGinn free-kick.
Again it was Acosty down the right – this time finding captain Zoran Kvrzic – the skipper’s deep delivery picked out COLAK at the back post and he nodded down and in from close range.
Aberdeen’s only effort on target in the 90 minutes was just before the break with keeper Andrej Prskalo parrying Ryan Hedges’ 20-yard drive.
The second half was distinctly non-descript. Aberdeen worked hard in a 4-4-1 formation to avoid further damage and Rijeka were content to knock the ball around defence and midfield without really threatening to score a third.
The supporters started to filter out of Pittodrie before the full-time whistle as another European campaign came to a disappointing end.
The Dons will need to regroup quickly after this disappointment as they face Dundee at Dens Park on Sunday in an important League Cup last-16 tie.