Having beaten the likes of Real Madrid and Bayern Munich back in the days when he was kicking a ball, Alex McLeish knows what it is to play without fear.
And as he assessed the visit of Celtic to Pittodrie this afternoon, the Dons legend insisted it is precisely what Derek McInnes’ side must do to inflict another defeat on the champions.
Despite the Hoops’ successive losses to Rangers and AC Milan, they will arrive in the Granite City as odds-on favourites to take all three points, and set themselves up for the second half of the double header – the Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden a week today.
McLeish, though, is far from sure it is a bet the bookies will be paying out on.
“I think Aberdeen have definitely got a big chance in this one,” he said.
“There have been times I have watched them play recently and thought: ‘Wow!’
“That is how good they have been, even after having to sell Scott McKenna to Nottingham Forest.
“If you look at sides set up by Derek over the years, they tend to have certain things in common.
“Invariably they are going to be solid, well-drilled and competitive.
“Every single player on the pitch is going to know their job, and what their role is in the team.
“How they play will vary, but the effort they put in will always be there.
“This team has all of those qualities. It is rock-solid.
“If you break it down, you have a really good keeper behind a defence who have a great understanding with one another.
“The core of the midfield possesses that same solidity, and has a nice blend of size, strength and energy.
“However, it is in the forward areas where they are really exciting. Derek has found a way to really sharpen things up.
“He has got so many different goal threats in the group.
“It is not just the individual players, either, but again – like the defence – it’s the way they combine with one another.
“People looking in from the outside would have seen Sam Cosgrove going out injured, and thought straight away, ‘They will struggle for goals.’.
“That is understandable. Who wouldn’t miss a 20-goal-a-season striker?
“But they have found a way to cope, and done so in style, with goals coming from all over.
“You have Marley Watkins scoring, Ryan Hedges getting in among the goals and the likes of Lewis Ferguson chipping in.
“You can see the confidence of these players is high, and when they click, it is exhilarating to watch.
“There was an example just in the past week when they put four past Hamilton Accies before it was even half-time.”
The former Scotland, Rangers, Hibs and Motherwell manager acknowledges hosting the Accies is not the same as taking on Celtic.
The fact Neil Lennon was able to turn to his substitutes’ bench during the Milan match to introduce Ryan Christie, Tom Rogic and Mohammed Elyounoussi says it all about the playing resources at the Irishman’s disposal.
“Of course, it is true you are going to get a very different challenge when you play Rangers or Celtic,” McLeish continued.
“With the talent they have, they are going to pose you problems, and you have to be able to deal with them.
“But these are big occasions when you have to step up, and you can’t be too fixated on what they are doing.
“You have to have trust in your own game, and be brave enough to go for it.
“I think we have seen a lot of teams doing that in Scotland this season, and it has been really refreshing.
“There have been loads of goals. Players seem to be freed from the worries of having to perform in front of fans, and are playing without fear.
“Listen, they are professionals, and performing in front of crowds is a big part of their game. We can’t forget that.
“For now, we should just enjoy it.
“If Aberdeen play with freedom against Celtic, I really can see them winning.
“Neil Lennon has some of his players coming back now after a time where his choice was certainly restricted, and he is going to expect that to make a difference.
“Ryan Christie did really well on loan at Pittodrie, and he is now an important player for Celtic because he gives them an extra bit of zip and energy.
“At the same time, though, you look at a couple of the Aberdeen lads – Hedges and Ferguson, for example – and they are capable of hurting any opposition side.”
The 61-year-old argues that, should the Dons be in need of any inspiration, they only have to look to their own back line.
Andrew Considine has been affectionately nicknamed “the Banchory Baresi” by sections of the club’s support following his successful introduction into the Scotland team at the age of 33.
“It is a great story,” said McLeish.
“To see a player get his chance at this late stage of his career – and to grab it with both hands as he did – was just fantastic.
“He has gone in against Slovakia and the Czech Republic, who are a top quality side, and played like someone who has been there for years.
“I played with Andy’s father, Doug, at Aberdeen, so I have known him forever.
“I nearly picked him myself when I was manager of the Scotland team.
“We tried quite a few centre-halfs, and Andy was one who certainly came under consideration.
“It wasn’t any reflection on him at all that we chose to go a different way.
“You have a lot of things to balance up, and a big pool of players to pick from, so some people are going to miss out.
“The fact that a long-serving and hard-working pro like Andy has eventually got his reward is really pleasing. I am delighted for him.
“It is also such a good example of what can be achieved if you keep believing, and keep working hard.”
McLeish has likewise been impressed by a player who is still in the early days of his career, Ross McCrorie.
“Ross has really hit the ground running at Pittodrie,” he said.
“He has always been a really good young player, a confident young guy with talent to back it up.
“I think maybe too much was expected of him after he made the breakthrough at Rangers.
“It can be hard there for young players who have come through the system because there is so much pressure on first-team places.
“Ross showed his determination to play regular football by going out on loan, and now has landed at Aberdeen.
“He looks a great fit, having slotted in well alongside Lewis Ferguson in midfield. That looks a really promising partnership.
“You could use the same description about the Aberdeen team as a whole.
“They have exciting challenges ahead and look to be in a good place to deal with them.”
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