SUNDAYS don’t come much more beautiful for Dundee United fans than this. Back at the scene of their controversial League Cup quarter-final exit, the Tannadice club produced a compelling and ruthless performance to surge into the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup.
Scorers: Dundee United - Ciftci (16, 28), Gunning (36 pen), Mackay-Steven (49), Armstrong (57)
Bookings: Inverness - Watkins (sent off), Tansey (sent off); Dundee United - Ciftci, Mackay-Steven
Jackie McNamara’s vibrant side deserve all the credit which will come their way for a display which will cement their position as the fancy of many observers to lift the famous old trophy this season.
But they were undeniably assisted by an Inverness Caledonian Thistle outfit seemingly hell-bent on self-destruction. John Hughes’ men saw their hopes of a domestic cup double shattered by a combination of wretched defending throughout and the needless dismissals of Greg Tansey and Marley Watkins.
By the time Tansey saw red just before half-time, a Nadir Ciftci-inspired United were already 3-0 up. When Watkins followed him up the tunnel in the 71st minute, the rout had already been completed.
It was almost inevitable Ciftci’s name would be writ large over this tie, given the controversy which surrounded his involvement in the League Cup meeting between the sides back in October.
The choice of Gavin Harris as one of the assistant referees yesterday had raised eyebrows around Tannadice. It was the same official who was involved in the touchline fracas with Ciftci during United’s defeat that night. Predictably, Harris met a hail of abuse from the United support as he took up his position before kick-off.
But it was the inability of the Inverness defence to cope with Ciftci’s power, pace and movement which proved the most telling factor as United comprehensively avenged that League Cup disappointment.
On a heavily-sanded pitch which was not conducive to cohesive football by either team, Ciftci looked in the mood from the start as he saw his first attempt of the afternoon bravely blocked by Gary Warren in the fourth minute.
When he did make the breakthrough on the quarter-hour mark, it was with the assistance of a hesitant and disorganised Inverness rearguard. John Rankin, intelligent enough to recognise that playing the ball on the deck was not the order of the day, produced a well-judged, lofted pass for Ciftci to run on to.
Josh Meekings was caught on the wrong side of the United striker as they raced towards the penalty area, prompting Dean Brill to charge off his line in a bid to cut out the danger. But the goalkeeper mistimed his attempted intervention, Ciftci coolly taking the ball wide of him and slotting a precise low shot into the empty net from a tight angle.
Inverness should have equalised six minutes later from a well-worked set piece, Tansey picking out Warren whose header back across the six-yard box was headed over from close range by the uncharacteristically wasteful Billy McKay. But it was a fleeting moment of menace by the home side in a match increasingly dominated by United.
The visitors duly doubled their lead in the 27th minute as the opportunistic Ciftci took advantage of some comic-cut defending.
The goal originated from an Inverness corner kick, United captain Sean Dillon thumping his clearance up the pitch. It should have been easy enough for Meekings to tidy up but, apparently unnerved by Ciftci, his pass back to Brill was hurried. The ’keeper merely succeeded in blasting his attempted clearance off Meekings, the ball rebounding kindly for Ciftci to tap it into the net from a yard out.
Radoslaw Cierzniak made a decent save to keep out a Graeme Shinnie shot as Inverness tried to respond but United had the bit firmly between their teeth now and Ciftci was denied a rapid-fire hat-trick when his header was clawed away by Brill.
Any prospect of Inverness turning the tie around all but evaporated when they conceded a penalty to go 3-0 down in the 36th minute. There was no doubt about the award, Shinnie catching Gavin Gunning from behind just inside the area.
With Ciftci and Mackay-Steven having both failed from the spot in United’s 3-1 win at Hibs the previous weekend, Gunning assumed responsibility and made no mistake, smashing the ball high into the net beyond the wrong-footed Brill. From that moment on, Inverness simply imploded. They were reduced to ten men two minutes before half-time, referee Willie Collum reaching for his red card immediately when Tansey made a rash studs-up challenge on Paton.
Cierzniak had to make another good stop to deny Shinnie at the start of the second half, but if anyone was entertaining thoughts of a miraculous recovery by Hughes’ men, they were wiped out when United made it 4-0 in the 49th minute. Stuart Armstrong’s astute pass sent Mackay-Steven sprinting clear on the left and he drove a low, left-foot shot beyond the exposed Brill from around 14 yards.
United were thoroughly enjoying themselves by now, the verve and confidence of their work summed up by a superb fifth goal in the 57th minute. Ciftci was involved again, sending Keith Watson down the right and the full-back’s cross was thumped home at the near post by the head of Armstrong.
Just when Inverness thought their day could not get any worse, it did. Another reckless and unnecessary challenge, this time by Watkins as he went in with studs raised on Paton, left Collum with little option but to produce his red card again.
Inverness CT: Brill, Raven, Warren, Meekings, Shinnie; Watkins, Vincent, Tansey, Doran (Williams 60); Foran (Polworth 60), McKay (Christie 87). Subs not used: Esson, Ross, Devine, Tremarco..
Dundee United: Cierzniak, Watson, Dillon, Gunning, Robertson; Paton, Rankin (Gomis 60); Mackay-Steven, Dow (El Alagui 54), Armstrong; Ciftci (Graham 60). Subs not used: McCallum, Butcher, Wilson, Souttar.