NADIR Ciftci scored an impressive first-half double as Dundee United kept their hopes of a top-three Scottish Premiership finish alive with a one-sided 5-1 victory over Motherwell.
Scorers: Dundee United - Ciftci (8, 41) Armstrong (61), Dow (72), Graham (81); Motherwell - Ainsworth (88)
Bookings: Motherwell - Leitch, McManus, Lasley
THIS was a day when everything that is right about the game was exemplified by a team united in more than name. With their hopes of a top-three finish still hanging in the balance, the Tannadice side still took time out ahead of the game to offer a public show of support for their young club-mate Jordan Moore, donning T-shirts with his name and picture on them, after it was revealed he is battling skin cancer.
Then they joined everyone else in a minute’s applause for club legend, Frank Kopel, who had passed away.
Those moments put sport in perspective, reminding everyone that it is purely a game, a simple form of entertainment.
That entertainment factor was rammed home with the kind of delightful flicks, attacking flair and exquisite finishing that are fast becoming synonymous with Jackie McNamara’s men.
“We put on an entertaining display and we all really enjoyed the game and moreover we won it,” said Stuart Armstrong, who produced the kind of football that torments defenders but brings a smile to the face of the United fans and neutrals.
“It always seems to be the case this season that when we play Motherwell we play well. They have been high-scoring games and that was the case again.
“I don’t know why it is but everyone enjoys playing Motherwell and it brings the best out in players and we manage to entertain the fans.”
It was the ideal way to bounce back from the disappointment of defeat at the hands of St Johnstone last week. That loss left United fully aware that only a win against Stuart McCall’s men would keep them in the chase for a third-place finish.
It was a match that could have crystalised things. Three points for Motherwell would have left the Tayside team pinning all their hopes for European football next season on Scottish Cup victory.
Seven points behind their guests at kick-off, by the end of the match, not only had they closed the gap on Motherwell, they had humiliated them in the process and reminded everyone they have the desire to match fancy footwork and creativity.
If United could produce this form on a consistent basis they would, undoubtedly be aiming higher than third but for this season, with three league games remaining, they would settle for that.
Time and again they burst forward with purpose and poise and left Motherwell looking pretty silly as a flick or a feint had them tied in knots or chasing shadows of players on top form.
“They were very, very good and we were very, very poor,” admitted the disappointed Motherwell boss, Stuart McCall. “We knew their strength. It’s on the counter attack.
“They break with so much pace and desire and we were second best in every department. It’s how we come back from that.”
United were themselves showing the perfect response to their beating in Perth last weekend. McNamara, who is still serving a touchline ban, had held a team meeting during the week, demanding more and he got the response he wanted.
“It was night and day from last week,” said his assistant Simon Donnelly. “That’s the most pleasing thing for us as coaches.
“We were really disappointed last week and I think the boys felt it as well. We worked really hard this week and it has culminated in a great response today.
“There was a lot of quality but the concerning thing at one point was that for all our play going forward, we were only one up.”
The opener had come from Nadir Ciftci in the eighth minute when both centre halves were left in the lurch as Armstrong made an advance and created the opportunity which the Turkish striker took impeccably.
They continued to entertain and stretch the game but the second goal was a while in coming, arriving just five minutes before the interval.
Armstrong was again involved in the build-up, linking with Gary Mackay Steven before crossing in for Ciftci to send another right foot finish beyond Gunnar Neilson. “We had a couple of little scares at the start of the second half and [Keith] Lasley and somebody else had a chance but after that we kicked on again and we knew that the third goal was going to be the most important goal in the game, to kill it, and Stuart finished it brilliantly,” added Donnelly.
The goal was just reward for an accomplished shift that allied hard work to real finesse.
The goal came on the hour mark and saw him run onto a ball played into space by Ryan Dow. After that it was individual effort and ability that took him in on goal, hold off the defender and allowed him to slot it under the advancing keeper.
“I always love scoring and I said at the start of the season that I wanted to add more goals to my game but it felt like a lifetime from my first touch to when it went into the back of the net but more importantly that made it 3-0 and gave us the cushion and the feeling then was that we were going to win the game.”
After that it was simply the scoreline that remained the unknown quantity.
Dow got his reward in the 71st minute, peeling into space at the back post as Gavin Gunnings cross was played in, allowing it to drop and then slamming it home, after which substitute Brian Graham rounded off the rout nine minutes from the end.
Lionel Ainsworth got a goal for Motherwell at the death but no-one would dare to call it a consolation effort. Not on a day when they were so soundly beaten.