Sporting Lisbon might be undercooked and understrength, but Aberdeen know they can ill afford to underestimate their Europa League third qualifying round opponents in Portugal this evening.
The hosts are reeling from a Covid-19 outbreak within the club which has deprived them of several first-team players and saw their opening league match called off on Saturday.
The Pittodrie side have their own worries – principally, coping without Scott McKenna after his reported £3m transfer to Nottingham Forest was confirmed yesterday. In addition, McInnes revealed Curtis Main has stayed behind in Aberdeen to aid his recovery following a thigh strain. Dean Campbell, meanwhile, has broken the second metatarsal in his right foot and was also absent from the travelling party yesterday.
“We need to have the game of our lives,” said McInnes, with reference to Sporting Lisbon’s storied reputation. “We need to do so many things right and get the balance between defence and attack. It is 90 minutes, cup football – we have a chance, no doubt about that.”
McInnes agreed that tonight was “a semi-final” with a potential final to come next week at Pittodrie against either Austrian side Lask or FC DAC 1904 from Slovakia. He has often described reaching the group stage as being akin to winning a major trophy. This is now his seventh attempt to reach that promised land.
It is so near yet still so very, very far. The loss of such a pivotal figure as McKenna on the eve of a game in which they will have to try to cope with Brazilian danger man Wendel cannot help.
McInnes stressed that the sale had to be viewed as a “good news story” for the club. But as manager he could also be forgiven the expressive sigh that followed.
“It doesn’t feel like a good new story to me at the moment,” he added. “Because I would rather have had him in the team!”
McKenna, pictured, would have been a particularly handy player to call upon. The Jose Alvalade stadium will be empty this evening but there will still be a sense of occasion in the air. McKenna has skippered his country at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico and would have relished this stage.
McInnes accepted that while he might have preferred a different week for the transfer to have been concluded, the time is now right for McKenna to make the next step. Aberdeen almost had a moral duty to let him go after turning down earlier bids. McKenna stuck to his part of the deal when agreeing to sign a new long-term contract in May 2018 in order to protect the club financially.
The Pittodrie side can look back with satisfaction at the part they have played in the player’s development. Although they might have pocketed more had they accepted an offer two years ago of nearly £7m from Aston Villa, the manager believes that, given the circumstances, the fee is acceptable. It is set to rise further after a certain number of appearances. The real jackpot will be if Nottingham Forest secure promotion to the Premier League – or if McKenna is sold on.
“I think he’s worth more, but it is still a good fee,” said McInnes. “He wants to show he can play in another league and at another club. Nottingham Forest are his club now. He has been keen to get down south. I understand that as well, I wanted to get down to England as well and perform. He is now doing it and I am sure he will do well. He recognised there is no time for moping about, disappointed though he was on a couple of occasions (when bids were turned down). He knew the only way to overcome the disappointment was by knuckling down and working hard.
“Hopefully he will go and show people what a good centre back he is and I am confident he will. And we will look on with a lot of pride.”
It has been an emotional few days for McInnes, whose first glimpse of life after McKenna was far from auspicious. With McKenna missing from central defence as negotiations with Forest continued, Aberdeen fell to their biggest defeat of the season on Sunday. They conceded more goals (three) in the opening 25 minutes against Motherwell than they have done in the league to date.
Although the McKenna funds will help, McInnes, pictured, recognised the added difficulties stemming from the Scottish government’s decision to forbid fans to return to stadium for at least another three weeks, and, in all likelihood, for some time after that. It puts reaching the group stage and triggering further funds from Uefa into even sharper focus.
The prolonged absence of supporters is particularly frustrating for Aberdeen, who staged a successful test event against Kilmarnock earlier this month when 300 fans were permitted entry. “I think we’re dicing with danger, a wee bit, if we don’t get supporters back into stadiums as quickly as possible,” said McInnes. “We feel strongly that we can, without question, cope with a lot more supporters in our stadium. And we will be pushing hard, over the next few weeks, to demonstrate that and show that we can.”
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