Aberdeen made a significant move in the race for a Europa League place with a Scottish Premiership win over Hearts.
Derek McInnes’ side edged three points clear of Kilmarnock in the fight for third spot thanks to second-half goals by Lewis Ferguson and Greg Stewart.
It was only their second home win in eight games at Pittodrie.
In between those goals, Bobby Burns forced in his first Hearts strike, but Craig Levein’s side continue their disappointing end to the campaign.
The Tynecastle side, whose only win in their last seven games was at home against Aberdeen, have now not won in four outings.
Kilmarnock get the chance to return to third on Saturday against Hibernian, who host Aberdeen in their final game next weekend while the Ayrshire side welcome Rangers.
The second- and third-placed sides in the division will qualify for the Europa League, with the team in fourth also earning a place if Celtic win the Scottish Cup final.
Crunching challenges and fine finishes
While Aberdeen are looking to qualify for Europe via in the league, Hearts will do likewise should they deny Celtic a third consecutive treble in the Scottish Cup final on 25 May. However, Levein’s side continue to search for some form.
Having failed to score on their last five visits to Pittodrie, shorn of their most potent attacking threats through injury, and with Levein making six changes to prevent further casualties ahead of Hampden, this had all the hallmarks of a damage limitation exercise from kick off for the visitors.
You almost felt like giving their young side a cheer if they managed to string more than three passes together, but what they lacked in fluency, they made up for with crunching challenges that left their mark on their opponents.
Yet Aberdeen, with Graeme Shinnie back in the home midfield after injury for what will be his last game at Pittodrie before leaving for Derby County, had two point-blank saves by goalkeeper Joe Lewis – from Conor Shaughnessy and Clevid Dikamona – to thank for going in level at half-time.
It was pure persistence and perspiration that had taken Hearts anywhere near Aberdeen’s penalty box, but it was the home side who had the greater class up front.
Colin Doyle, who had looked nervous in his first game back in Hearts’ goal since February, had done well to save from Sam Cosgrove only to watch a Ferguson drive flash past him seconds later.
Doyle saved again from Cosgrove before Burns turned in the equaliser after an Oliver Bozanic cross was flicked on by a couple of Hearts heads.
The game had burst into life and Max Lowe crosses caused panic in the visiting penalty box as Shay Logan headed wide then Doyle did well to block at his near post after a deflection.
Aberdeen’s pressure told and it would have been noted down in Ayrshire that it came via a thumping finish from Stewart, who began the season on loan to Kilmarnock from Birmingham City.
There were still some nervous moments to come for the home side with Lewis still hobbling from his collision with Shaughnessy as a Dikamona header looped on to roof of net and the goalkeeper perhaps fortunate to escape with a yellow card for pulling down Steven MacLean outside the penalty box.
‘It wasn’t pretty, but job done’ – analysis
BBC Scotland’s Tyrone Smith at Pittodrie
Stewart starred for Kilmarnock in the first half of the season and his goal for Aberdeen could deliver a major blow to his former club’s chances of securing an European spot and boost his new side’s hopes of doing the same.
Aberdeen know that it is no longer in their own hands and all they can do is put pressure on Kilmarnock, who have a superior goal difference, and they did that on Friday. It wasn’t pretty – in fact, it was the very opposite – but McInnes’ men won’t care as they ground out a priceless three points. Now it’s over to Kilmarnock.
‘Three points was everything’ – reaction
Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes: “I thought we deserved the win. It was important. In the context of our season, three points was everything.
“We’ve got Joe Lewis to thank for a couple of saves in that first half. Credit to big Joe for playing on despite what looked like a really uncomfortable injury.”
Hearts manager Craig Levein: “I’m disappointed to not take something from the match. We matched Aberdeen nearly all over the pitch.
“At the time I wasn’t sure whether Joe Lewis should’ve been sent off. I was quite sure it wasn’t in the box so I didn’t think it was a penalty. If Steven MacLean stays on his feet, it’s two more strides and he’s stroking the ball into an empty net. So the answer is yes.”