INVERNESS Caley Thistle surged to within 90 minutes of a ground-breaking foray into European football after edging out closest rivals Dundee United in the torrential rain.
Scorers: Inverness CT: Ofere (38), Williams (43); Dundee United: Muirhead (2)
Victory after strikes by Edward Ofere and Danny Williams, overturning Robbie Muirhead’s early strike, ended a run of nine league games without a win since 14 February and thrust John Hughes’ side to the brink of club history.
After the most nerve-racking of finishes, a modest home crowd erupted in delight to greet the outcome with the prospect of celebrating the club’s 21st birthday with continental action now seeming almost certain.
Victory over Dundee at Dens Park will now seal the remarkable feat for Hughes’ Scottish Cup finalists.
There was enough water tumbling steadily from the Highland skies to douse a forest fire, never mind one of Nadir Ciftci’s occasional flare-ups against Inverness.
But referee Calum Murray happily passed the surface playable for a tie re-arranged from 15 March in the dank, blustery conditions, with the pitch standing up to the elements despite a moat of puddles forming outside the edges of the turf.
Ciftci, the Turkish striker, had become something of a bete noir in Inverness eyes given one or two flare-ups, including an infamous clash last time out with red-carded Gary Warren.
But it would have been Ciftci’s attacking threat that would have most pre-occupied home manager Hughes as he re-jigged his defence in the absence of suspended right-back David Raven.
Josh Meekings, customarily a central defender, moved into the vacant full-back role with Danny Devine, earning valuable game time ahead of his likely Scottish Cup final appearance, given Warren’s suspension for the historic Hampden Park occasion.
Ross Draper’s muscular presence was also restored to the heart of midfield after a two-game suspension, with Aaron Doran, Saturday’s scorer at St Johnstone, dropping to the bench.
Last night was never going to be decisive either way in the fight for third place, with the two teams scheduled to meet again 11 days later, but it was clearly hugely important to both sides’ aspirations.
Hughes, recipient of the PFA Scotland’s manager of the year award on Sunday night, craves Europa League qualification for the first time and, of course, a first national cup trophy.
As was quickly apparent, United’s desire was no less.
Immediate home pressure, sparked by a Meekings surge forward down the right, ended with a James Vincent strike deflected for a corner.
But from the very next move, United took a distinctly weather-assisted lead. Devine tried an ill-judged passback towards Ryan Esson that stopped dead on the sodden surface.
Esson raced to beat Ciftci to the ball with a sliding clearance but it fell square to Robbie Muirhead who lobbed from close to 40 yards into the empty net.
There was fresh panic soon after as Muirhead’s cross-cum-shot flew against the angle of post and bar with Esson flapping to reach.
The hosts threatened to hit back after 11 minutes when Graeme Shinnie won a free-kick just outside the United penalty area. Greg Tansey drove a deflected strike towards the bottom corner, but Radoslaw Cierzniak got down swiftly to save.
Muirhead was a stand-out in the treacherous conditions and, after 18 minutes, his 20-yard dead-ball dig forced a superb parry by Esson low to his right.
From Tansey’s corner five minutes later, a Warren header had to be hacked off the line by the well-positioned Paul Dixon. Then a Tansey screamer from distance rose just over the United bar.
The game exploded to life as a turn of pace by Ciftci left Devine for dead, as he sliced right through the heart of the home defence. Somehow, Draper matched him and timed his saving tackle to perfection.
The hosts were level seven minutes before the break after defying the conditions with a sublime passing move. Danny Williams’ measured pass found Marley Watkins free on the left side of the box and he touched the ball square to Ofere to stab home his fifth goal of the season from seven yards.
Then John Rankin got in front of James Vincent to knock away a lofted ball into the box. The attempted clearance spun to Williams 25 yards out and his reaction was simply stunning – the sweetest of connections fizzing over Cierzniak and high into the roof of the net.
A Watkins run and cross four minutes into the second period re-ignited the contest, but his powerfully-swept cross struck off the unlucky Ofere’s legs at the far post.
A ball from Williams in from the far left was also glanced just wide of the stretching figure
of Watkins, who also saw a finish disallowed for offside moments later as the hosts scented blood.
It became rather tame for long spells thereafter as Inverness edged closer to a monumental result and energy, on both sides, inevitably ebbed on the sodden surface.
Late on, United substitute Henri Anier struck a shot against Warren, then hacked the rebound high over the bar as they kept fighting with spirit, but in vain against the staunch hosts.
ICT: Esson; Meekings, Warren, Devine, Shinnie; Vincent (Ross 87), Draper, Tansey, Williams (Christie 81); Ofere; Watkins (Doran 90). Subs not used: Mackay, Tremarco, Polworth, Kink.
Dundee Utd: Cierzniak; McGowan (Dillon 53), Fojut, Morris, Dixon; Telfer (Anier 72), Rankin, Souttar, Spittal (Erskine 59); Ciftci, Muirhead. Subs not used: Szromnik, Butcher, Connolly, Smith.