DUNDEE United, with their eighth win in nine games, ensured their push for a European place gathered further momentum last night as they deservedly overcame Inverness.
Dundee United 2 -1 Inverness
SCORERS: Dundee; Gauld (49), Dow (76), Inverness; Polworth (81)
Referee: E Norris
Jackie McNamara’s side, who also have a Scottish Cup semi-final to look forward to against Rangers, succeeded in reducing the gap between themselves and second-top Aberdeen to just five points going into what promises to be an intriguing run-in.
It was the perfect morale-booster for the Tayside club – thanks to second-half goals by Ryan Gauld and Ryan Dow prior to Liam Polworth’s late strike for the visitors – ahead of this Saturday’s trip to face Aberdeen in the race for that coveted second spot.
Inverness, though, arrived on Tayside with more than just a point to prove given the nature of the last encounter between the two teams.
United had thrashed their Highland opponents 5-0 on their own turf in a surprisingly one-sided Scottish Cup quarter-final recently, which left John Hughes, the Inverness manager, livid with the meek manner of their display in front of the live cameras.
For the hosts, teenager Gauld came back into the starting line-up at the expense of striker Brian Graham to decent effect and was instrumental in their overall play.
But it was the visitors who began brightest by forging the first real attack inside five minutes. Josh Meekings fed a pass to Billy Mckay, Caley Thistle’s prolific striker, and he had nothing else on his mind but to try his luck from outside the penalty area. After taking a neat first touch, the Northern Ireland ace unleashed a left-foot shot which Radoslaw Cierzniak, the United goalkeeper, had to look lively to gather with both hands.
In their next foray, skipper Richie Foran picked out Mckay who, in turn, played a pass into the path of the on-rushing Greg Tansey who had surged forward with typical urgency. But just as Tansey was preparing to latch on to the ball inside the penalty box, United defender Gavin Gunning did just enough to get across and foil their efforts with a timely interception.
That served to enliven the hosts, whose reply came in the form of Gauld setting up Dow, and from 12 yards his effort was comfortably saved by Dean Brill, the Inverness ’keeper.
As the first half simmered along, Inverness’s Ross Draper was fortunate not to become the first player to enter referee Euan Norris’s book, going in late on Gauld but still managing to escape a caution.
Foran, a few minutes later, attempted to lift things with a speculative shot from distance which was never going to seriously trouble Cierzniak. They did, though, come within inches of taking the lead in 30 minutes with a well-crafted move.
Tansey’s defence-splitting pass was perfect for Mckay to run on to inside the left channel.
Mckay looked like he had claimed his 22nd goal of the season, only for Gunning to race back in time to clear his effort off the line.
At the other end, United’s Nadir Ciftci rifled an effort from the edge of the penalty area which Brill was relieved so see speed low past his right-hand post.
There was more purpose about the home team after the break and that was rewarded with the opening goal in 49 minutes. In a flowing move, Andrew Robertson released Stuart Armstrong whose pass then found Gauld.
Gauld’s first effort was blocked on the line by Caley Thistle full-back Graeme Shinnie, but from the rebound the teenager made no mistake by despatching the ball into the empty net from close range.
United set about looking to add to their tally and soon after Ciftci saw his curling free kick just clear the bar. They did not, however, have to wait too much longer before increasing their lead, albeit with a slice of good fortune in 75 minutes.
There was some more of the comical defending which marred their heavy cup final defeat as Brill rolled the ball out to Meekings, who gave it back to his ’keeper. But Brill succeeded in only rattling the ball off Dow who had applied some pressure, and had the simple task of knocking the ball home from a matter of yards.
Inverness substitute Liam Polworth pulled one back in spectacular fashion in 81 minutes, drilling the ball into Cierzniak’s top corner from fully 30 yards.
But it wasn’t enough to unduly trouble the hosts in the dying minutes, who deserved their latest victory on the strength of their second-half performance.
Dundee United: Cierzniak, Wilson, Robertson, Paton, Dillon, Gunning, Dow, Rankin, Ciftci (Graham 77), Gauld (Mackay-Steven 70), Armstrong (Gomis 89).
Inverness CT: Brill, Raven, Shinnie, Foran (Polworth 64), Warren, Meekings, Tansey, Draper (Ross 87), McKay, Vincent, Watkins (Christie 79).
Ryan Gauld celebrates after scoring Dundee United’s opening goal at Tannadice last night Picture: SNS