A SOLITARY goal from Brian Graham was enough to settle an ill-tempered tie at Rugby Park and take St Johnstone into tonight’s League Cup quarter-final draw.
Scorers: St Johnstone - Graham 54
The home side had enjoyed the bulk of possession and the better chances for most of the game but the lack of a cutting edge cost them dearly and their hopes of progressing disappeared when their most influential player, Alexei Eremenko, was dismissed in the 71st minute.
Finland midfielder Eremenko made his eighth appearance of the season but, tellingly, his first from the start for Kilmarnock and his influence was felt almost from the kick-off.
Exuding calm and confidence, the 31-year-old was always prepared to put his foot on the ball and make things happen.
Alan Mannus had to dive to his right to turn behind a well-struck 20-yarder in the eight minute and, almost immediately, he sent Josh Magennis clear with a perfectly-weighted pass only for the striker to fire wide from 18 yards.
Eremenko tested the goalkeeper twice more from distance in the opening half hour and also took the corner from which Mark Connolly forced another save from Mannus with a downward header.
On a less positive note, the 31-year-old was cautioned for simulation when he threw himself in an attempt to win a free-kick. He picked himself up, dusted himself down and twice came within inches of opening the scoring, first with a volley from Tope Obadeyi’s cutback and then with a screamer from 30 yards.
Craig Samson, by contrast, did not have a save to make during a first half in which the visitors toiled to string three passes together.
That changed just two minutes after the break when he was called into action to deny first Graham and then Saints captain David Mackay.
However, the game was turned on its head in the 53rd minute when Graham volleyed home after a Michael O’Halloran shot had ricocheted into his path.
Kilmarnock attempted to climb off the canvas but a promising break from Tope Obadeyi was halted by a cynical foul from Brian Easton, who could not have complained about the resulting caution.
However, Saints’ cause was helped enormously when the tiring Eremenko gave the ball away to O’Halloran and then pulled him back by the jersey as he broke away from him.
A second yellow card from the referee was inevitable, as was the visitors’ victory, their fifth in eight undefeated visits to Rugby Park.
Kilmarnock: Samson, Pascali, Connolly, Chantler (Westlake - 51), Barbour, Obadeyi, Johnston (Miller - 67), Hamill, Clingan (Ngoo - 63), Eremenko, Magennis
St Johnstone: Mannus, Mackay, Miller, Easton, Anderson, Davidson, Lappin (Wotherspoon - 76), Millar, Croft (Caddis - 86), O’Halloran , Graham