Inverness retained a covetous grasp on the Scottish Cup last night after wearing down a stubborn and plucky Stirling Albion.
The part-timers fought valiantly to create an upset against last May’s triumphant winners but were sunk by a goal in each half by Andrea Mbuyi-Mutombo and Iain Vigurs.
Hampden Park in the sunshine seemed a long way away in the chill Inverness air but the Highlanders will now battle it out with Motherwell at Fir Park on 6 February for a place in the quarter-finals.
John Hughes had lit the blue touchpaper ahead of this fourth round replay by questioning the character of some of his squad in battling through injuries.
It was unclear just who within his squad the criticism had been aimed at but his team were still six players down for the return tie.
Mbuyi-Mutombo, the Brussels-born Congolese international, earned his first start since Inverness Caley Thistle’s Highland derby victory in Dingwall back in early October – and proved an important inclusion.
Stirling, brave and resilient in the 0-0 draw ten days earlier, were able to name almost an identical side to the one which did so well in the first cup game, with 21-year-old Ross McGeachie replacing injured Kevin McKinlay.
From the off, Stirling looked as feisty as they had in the first meeting and in the mood to make mischief.
The visitors’ front pairing of Steven Doris, the former St Johnstone and Dundee striker, and ex-Motherwell and Ross County man Darren Smith were to link superbly in a series of rapid counter-attacks to trouble the Premiership team.
There was a real scare for Inverness after only three minutes amid just such a determined burst forward by Stuart McLaren’s men.
As Doris surged away from Danny Devine and tore towards the home box, Danny Williams brought the striker crashing to earth and could consider himself lucky the referee drew only a yellow card from his top pocket. Doris lined up the dead ball opportunity but sent it over the bar.
Caley Thistle gradually settled and began to move the ball more convincingly and steadily apply greater pressure.
From a Greg Tansey corner, Gary Warren smacked a header goalward but saw it hacked to safety. Mbuyi-Mutombo then cut inside across the outside of the penalty area before curling a 20-yard shot over the bar. But with 28 minutes gone the Belgian’s moment came, as he took a short Williams pass from the left and again sliced inside, before sending a 25-yard strike with his right foot rising perfectly into the top left-hand corner.
The Binos managed to exert some pressure before the hour, though, forcing some desperate Inverness blocks ending in screams for a Stirling penalty as Ross Forsyth seemed to drive a shot against Devine’s hand in the box.
After that scare, the hosts finally soothed anxieties in the home crowd after 61 minutes.
Ross Draper deserved credit, pulling the ball back from the right side of the box to square on goal, where Vigurs produced an exquisite right-foot finish from 15 yards.
It proved a hard-fought final 30 minutes, but no matter how hard Stirling worked, Inverness were always firmly in control. The only concern for the hosts was a late injury to new signing Alex Fisher, the former Torquay striker.