THE general presumption remains that Celtic will be champions by some distance, but right now there is no denying that Dundee United deserve to be top of the table. This was their third win in a week, and, while altogether less spectacular than their demolition of Dundee six days earlier, it was also significantly more accomplished than their League Cup derby victory in midweek.
Dundee United 2-0 St Johnstone 0
Scorers: Dundee United - Erskine 23; Paton 72
St Johnstone had won their last four games against United, all with clean sheets, the last of them being the Scottish Cup final. But Nadir Ciftci’s pleasing blend of power and creativity was too much for them on Saturday, and although other players in the home team were below top form, collectively they were superior to a Saints team who have a glaring need of cover for injured striker Steven MacLean.
“We’re not thinking too much about being top of the league,” goalscorer Paul Paton said. “It’s pleasing to be there, but nobody’s really mentioning it – it’s too early in the season for that.
“It’s brilliant to keep winning games, but we know Celtic have the strongest squad in the league. I would expect us to be closer to them [than last season], but I don’t want to build us up for a fall. Celtic have the squad and the money to spend in January to strengthen if need be, but we are just happy to be doing well at the moment.
“The more you win the more confident you are. The most pleasing thing is we know we have a few gears to go up because we can play better.”
As his team were thumped 6-1 by Celtic at the start of the season, Paton’s caution was understandable. United manager Jackie McNamara has too small a squad and not nearly enough money to maintain a long-term challenge to his old club, and even staying anywhere close to the top could be difficult if Ciftci, booked here for a reckless challenge on Frazer Wright, picks up too many suspensions.
But they are a team with a very positive mind-set, and although some of their clearances from the back are aesthetically lacking, once their front men get the ball down, their play is very easy on the eye. Ciftci can hold on to possession for far too long, but, while at times he can be blind to team-mates in better positions, at others he has an acuteness of vision which few in the Scottish game can match.
That was best illustrated by the build-up to the opening goal, in which his dummy from a long throw-out by Radoslaw Cierzniak set him free to bear down on the Saints box before he set up Chris Erskine to sidefoot home.
While that goal came about because Saints committed too many into attack, the second, in which the Turkish striker also played a prominent role, was a case of United’s movement being too quick at close quarters. Ciftci’s drive forward unsettled the visitors’ defence, then Keith Watson’s low cross from the right was met by Paton, who placed the ball into the corner of Alan Mannus’ net.
United could easily have scored one or two more in the remaining 20 minutes. But the home team also lived dangerously from time to time, and St Johnstone had several chances which on another day, with another striker in their ranks, might well have gone in.
With the score at 1-0, for example, a Michael O’Halloran shot came back off the post after Callum Morris had mis-kicked a Brian Easton cross. Then, barely two minutes after Paton’s goal, substitute Simon Lappin shot over from good position. If either of those efforts had found the net, Saints might at least have been in contention until the end.
They will have an unnamed striker on trial this week, and, with MacLean out for up to six months, manager Tommy Wright knows that making a signing is a gamble he will have to take. “We’ve got somebody coming in on trial, and anybody we get is going to be a risk,” he said. “They’re out of contract, hopefully not too far out of condition, but that’s how we bring people in and assess them.”