MATCHES between these two sides have rarely been short of goals or incident this season, but not even the 4-4 draw at Tannadice matched this relentless encounter for sheer drama.
ICT - Doran 42; Dundee Utd - Dow 50, Mackay-Steven 90
Inverness, seeking the win that would see them qualify for Europe for the first time, came out firing and utterly dominated their injury-ravaged visitors. Yet despite being constantly on the verge of being overwhelmed, United withstood a missed penalty and not only drew level against the run of play, but scored in the 90th minute to grab all three points.
Even a draw against Jackie McNamara’s understrength side would have left Inverness needing just a point in their final match to assure themselves of third place and a place in the Europa Cup, but defeat now means that they will have to take all three points at local rivals Ross County in the Highland derby to be sure of finishing above St Johnstone. It is not an inviting prospect, and manager Terry Butcher was clearly unimpressed.
“That was hugely disappointing,” said Butcher. “We had enough opportunities to win two or three matches. It’s our fault that we’re not in Europe, and it’s massively disappointing that at 1-0 we’ve conceded. We let chance after chance go missing, and they’ve hit us with a sucker punch. This is going to be a hard one to get over.”
Even Gary Mackay-Steven, the former Ross County player whose last-minute goal settled this encounter, saw Dundee United’s win as grand larceny. “I felt that we really didn’t deserve it, but it’s still good to get three points,” he conceded.
From the start Inverness created a slew of early chances, including one gilt-edged opportunity midway through the first half. Andrew Shinnie was once again the architect, his threaded pass giving Billy McKay just the keeper to beat, but instead of beating the advancing Radoslaw Cierzniak, he squared it for Aaron Doran at the back post, only for united skipper Jon Daly to bundle the ball out for a corner.
The home side virtually laid siege to United’s goal, starting with skipper Richie Foran’s speculative long-range shot two minutes in. From there on in there was attempt after attempt on the United goal. Josh Meekings put a free-kick just wide, Andrew Shinnie’s cross almost curled into the top corner and then Cierzniak tipped away McKay’s driven shot. At one stage it needed superb blocks from Jon Daly and 16-year-old John Souttar to deny McKay and Doran, pictured left, in quick succession.
Such was the pressure on the United goal that it was no surprise when after 35 minutes Doran went down in the box under minimal contact from John Rankin and referee Crawford Allan awarded a penalty that was so hotly contested by Rankin and Cierzniak that both received yellow cards. The Polish keeper had the last laugh, though, diving full-length to deny McKay’s spot-kick.
That setback did nothing to staunch the flow of chances to Inverness though, with Andrew Shinnie shooting just over from the edge of the box and Doran’s long-range shot being deflected just wide.
But just as a half of almost constant attempts on goal appeared set to end scoreless, Inverness finally made the breakthrough. When Doran picked up the ball 25 yards out it seemed harmless enough, but from the moment his low stinging drive left his boot it was destined for the bottom corner, and not even the most acrobatic dive from Cierzniak could keep this one out.
Just to emphasise Caley’s dominance, the half ended with United’s first corner, which was well met by Daly. Antonio Ruguero’s straightforward save was only his second of the half after he had saved well from Stuart Armstrong early on.
The second period started the same way as the first and Doran and Foran both forced Cierzniak into action within minutes of the restart.
Then, completely against the run of play and to the palpable shock of the whole stadium, it was United who struck next. It was a surprisingly soft goal, with Willo Flood’s lofted free-kick headed down by Daly and Ryan Dow volleying home.
That goal changed the whole dynamic of the game. Inverness still pressed, but United now counterattacked with real venom. Armstrong almost put the visitors ahead after he was played in by impressive 17-year-old midfielder Ryan Gauld, only to square the ball behind onrushing teammate Johnny Russell.
The finale was breathless, frantic stuff. McKay and Shinnie almost put Caley ahead on four occasions, while Armstrong, Michael Gardyne and Rankin responded in kind for United.
Caley looked increasingly desperate and ragged, with both Doran and Nick Ross squandering good chances, and how it came back to haunt them. With seconds of regulation time remaining Armstrong broke down the right and his cross to the back post was met with an emphatic finish by Mackay-Steven to take the race for Europe down to the final game.
Inverness CT: Reguero, Raven, Graeme Shinnie, Meekings, Hogg, Doran, Ross, Foran, Draper, Andrew Shinnie, McKay. Subs: Esson, Tudur Jones, Sutherland, Polworth, Pepper, Devine, Taylor.
Dundee Utd: Cierzniak, McLean, Daly, Souttar, Dow, Flood, Rankin, Armstrong, Gauld, Mackay-Steven, Russell. Subs: Anderson, Ryan, Millar, Gardyne, Tornstrand, Boulding, Johnston.