Dundee United chose the perfect time to savour their third consecutive win as they revived their burgeoning hopes of earning a European place by narrowing the gap on rivals Motherwell in this largely one-sided affair.
Jackie McNamara’s side’s recent resurgence continued in style last night when they more than out-played Stuart McCall’s who had been in fine form before arriving for this televised SPFL match on Tayside.
Ryan Dow’s well-taken early strike paved the way and goals in either half from fit-again defender Gavin Gunning ensured they moved to within seven points of second-top Aberdeen and just six behind Motherwell to make for a potentially interesting run-in.
John Sutton did pull a goal back from the penalty spot for the visitors early in the second-half but they flattered to deceive overall and few could begrudge the home team, who went in 2-0 ahead at the break, full points which may yet act as a significant turning point come the end of the season.
United welcomed back influential defender Gunning from a knee injury which had kept him sidelined in recent weeks, while Ryan Dow was handed a start after impressing as a substitute in last weekend’s 3-2 victory over Kilmarnock. John Souttar, though, failed to recover in time from an Achilles injury while fellow teenager Ryan Gauld was missing because of a leg knock. Motherwell were unchanged from the side which defeated Partick Thistle 4-3 the previous weekend, with new signing Craig Reid starting on the bench.
Everton were once more present inside Tannadice, presumably to run the rule over United’s full-back Andrew Robertson. Earlier in the week, Robertson had been called up to the full Scotland squad by national boss Gordon Strachan, such has been the consistently high level of his displays this season.
This was another opportunity for him to further enhance his growing reputation in front of the live cameras, and a chance also to help his team start clawing back a nine-point deficit on third-placed Motherwell.
Indeed, the hosts were first to threaten when in five minutes they carved out a genuine scoring opportunity.
Keith Watson’s cross from deep was met by midfielder John Rankin who, just a few days earlier, had lashed home a spectacular winner in their match with Killie. Rankin was in the mood to do some more damage and his half-volley had enough purchase on it, but sadly for the home team it narrowly went past Gunnar Nielsen’s far post.
Then, a few minutes later, they were to test the visiting defence again.
This time Dow’s lofted chip was perfect for Robertson to run onto, but just as he was preparing to pull the trigger, Motherwell defender Shaun Hutchinson came across to intercept and foil United’s hopes of snatching an early opener. United didn’t have to wait too much longer for the breakthrough for, in 22 minutes, Dow made it 1-0 to United after Hutchinson’s attempted pass-back from midway inside his own half fell well short.
Dow wasted no time in picking up possession and homing in on goal, before steadying himself sufficiently to sweep a shot past Motherwell keeper Gunnar Nielsen and into the far corner from 12-yards. That was no more than they had merited for their enterprising start which was in start contrast to their sluggish opponents.
It wasn’t until towards the end of the first-half that they were evident in an attacking sense, with Radoslaw Cierzniak being forced into his first save in 35 minutes. John Sutton caused some problems with his physical presence inside the United penalty area as he helped the ball onto Iain Vigurs.
Vigurs’ point-blank shot with his left-foot looked net-bound until Cierzniak instinctively palmed it away.
But United increased their lead in simple fashion in 42 minutes. Dow corner’s corner was head flicked on by Ciftci and Gunning was larking at the far post to stab the ball over the line.
It was richly deserved on the balance of play although they did survive a scare a minute later when Gunning appeared to go through Vigurs inside the box, but referee Bobby Madden wasn’t for budging which meant Motherwell’s claims for a penalty fell on deaf ears. It was to get worse for them at the start of the second-half when they found themselves trailing further. Vigurs brought down Ciftci 25-yards from goal and Gunning had only one thing on his mind as he tried his luck from 25-yards, and was fortunate to see his effort take a strong deflection off the Motherwell defensive wall before trickling into Nielsen’s far corner.
There appeared no way back for the Lanarkshire club but things changed somewhat when they were awarded a 56th minute penalty.
Ciftci was penalised for hand-ball from James McFadden’s thunderous free-kick.
Without hanging about, Sutton stepped up and made it 3-1 by sending Cierzniak the wrong way from the spot.
That served to give the visitors some fresh heart even though United had the chance to reinforce their lead on the hour mark, but Armstrong couldn’t keep his shot down from 12-yards.
Mackay-Steven could have sealed things with ten minutes remaining, only for Nielsen to foil his low shot from ten yards. Still, they’d did more than enough to earn their latest win.
Dundee United: Cierzniak, Watson, Gunning, Good, Robertson, Paton, Rankin, Mackay-Steven, Armstrong (Connolly 88), Dow (El Alagui 78), Ciftci.
Subs not used: Dillon, Graham, Wilson, McCallum, Gomis.
Goals: R Dow 22; G Gunning 42, 47.
Booked: N Ciftci
Motherwell: Nielsen, Hammell, Hutchinson, McManus, Francis-Angol, Ainsworth (Reid 67), Lasley, Carswell, Vigurs (Anier 77), McFadden, Sutton.
Subs not used: Hollis, Murray, Leitch, Shirkie, Thomas.
Goals: J Sutton 57 (pen).
Referee: B Madden