MOTHERWELL last night sneaked into second place in the Premiership table as Caley Thistle old boy Iain Vigurs made a triumphant return to his former haunt.
Scorers: Inverness - Christie (74); Motherwell - Anier (40), Vigurs (83)
Vigurs’ crisply-taken, superbly-worked winner created a single-point cushion on Aberdeen, although there remains everything to play for, with Derek McInnes’s side now holding one game in hand.
For Inverness, defeat perhaps marked a terminal blow in their own European ambitions, as they sank ten points off third place amid a poor streak of just one win in nine games.
John Hughes had billed this as a “must-win” occasion for Inverness given dwindling European aspirations, but had to tackle it without the considerable influence of injured captain Richie Foran.
With Aaron Doran’s trickery also consigned to the treatment table and central defender Josh Meekings suspended, Hughes made three changes and could muster only six substitutes.
The big surprise was the recall of player-goalkeeping coach Ryan Esson in place of dropped Dean Brill.
It was Esson’s first appearance of the season.
Defenders Carl Tremarco and Danny Devine were restored to the Highlanders’ revamped defence, with young Ryan Christie dropping to the bench and stand-in skipper Graeme Shinnie shunted into midfield.
Motherwell manager Stuart McCall, also making three changes, knew victory would knock one of his Europa League rivals out of the running.
Fraser Kerr, Henri Anier and Jack Leitch all stepped back in for starts, with Zaine Francis-Angol, Craig Moore and Lionel Ainsworth taking a seat on the bench.
The hosts’ need was probably greater, given the points chasm between them and ’Well, and they certainly displayed the greater urgency in the early exchanges.
Vigurs’ free kick from the right did force an early punched save from Esson, but the home side went closest after 13 minutes.
After a rapid break, Shinnie boldly went for goal 25 yards out and his curling attempt rippled the side-netting at pace.
But Motherwell were patient and hit on the break to take a 39th-minute lead.
Fraser Kerr deserved credit for spotting the chance to spear a long pass from deep into the path of Anier.
The Estonian striker’s turn of pace took him free of the home defence and he dinked a cool shot past the outcoming Esson.
Motherwell continued to play it canny, soaking up pressure and picking their moment to break.
The home side kept grafting, working the ball with purpose but still with a vocal, critical element of the support on their backs.
In fairness, the detractors were also Hughes’, who introduced the more attack-minded Christie for fellow 19-year-old Liam Polworth just after the hour in an obvious attempt to up the attacking ante.
Two minutes later, Motherwell’s Stephen McManus had to make a timely sliding block to keep out Greg Tansey’s fierce strike at an angle on the right side of the box after a superbly-picked pass by James Vincent.
Moments later, Tansey again threatened, catching a 30-yard strike with ferocious power, rattling the inside of the right-hand post almost out of its foundation.
There was no dubiety in Hughes’ intent at all after 67 minutes as the attack-minded Marley Watkins replaced home full-back David Raven.
Motherwell, though, consistently drew eight or nine men deep when the hosts held possession, expertly snuffing out the home movement and intent.
It was going to take something extra special to turn the tide in favour of Inverness and, to the Highland support’s delight, so it came.
It looked like they had, again, smacked square into a wall of claret and amber when the ball broke to young Christie 25 yards out.
The son of past club great Charlie, touted for young Scotland international recognition this week by his manager, took a neat touch and unleashed a quite brilliant strike low past Gunnar Nielsen.
Suddenly, there was an onus on McCall’s men to be more expansive with the points again in the balance. But with eight minutes left, the familiar figure of former Caley Thistle and Ross County midfielder Vigurs exposed the home defence.
Vigurs and substitute Craig Moore weaved their way through the middle, exchanging several passes with each other before the former expertly cut a shot beyond Esson’s despairing dive.
There were howls for a home free kick to the right of the box moments after the restart but referee Craig Thomson waved play on and Tansey drove across the face of goal with no takers.
Inverness: Esson, Raven (Watkins 67), Warren, Devine, Tremarco, Polworth (Christie 61), Vincent, Ross Draper, Tansey, Shinnie, McKay. Subs not used: Ross, Brill, Williams, Evans.
Motherwell: Nielsen, Reid (Francis-Angol 46), Hutchinson, McManus, Hammell, Kerr, Lasley, Vigurs, Leitch (Cadden 87), Sutton, Anier (Moore 68). Subs not used: Stewart, Murray, Ainsworth, Thomas.