DUNDEE United’s front four have been the focus of so much richly deserved praise this season and three of them were again on the scoresheet on Saturday as they reached the Scottish Cup final at the expense of Rangers.
Rangers 1-3 Dundee United
Scorers: Rangers - Smith (42); Dundee United - Armstrong (23), Mackay-Steven (36), Ciftci (83)
But this was an all-round performance by Jackie McNamara’s team – one of increasing maturity that should enthuse and encourage not only United’s own supporters, but Scottish football as a whole.
They are not the best team in the country, not by a long way, and will need to become substantially more consistent next season if they are to improve on what looks like being a fourth-placed finish this year. But they are probably the team that supporters of other clubs most like to watch: the one whose love of the game shines through most brightly.
United’s shortcomings were obvious in this semi-final, with their central defence being shown up as flat-footed on a couple of occasions early on, while goalkeeper Radoslaw Cierzniak was at fault for Rangers’ goal and looked shaky at other moments. Even so, they displayed an impressive resilience which does not come easily to such relatively inexperienced players.
True, United were favourites, and rightly so, being two divisions above their opponents. But remember the row about Ibrox being nominated as the so-called neutral venue for both semi-finals and the furore about the ticket allocation, which led to roughly three-quarters of the ground being decked out as usual in red, white and blue?
Those factors had supposedly heaped more pressure on the team in tangerine.
But if that was indeed the case, it was pressure they were well able to withstand and overcome.
All the same, they were fortunate not to be at least a goal behind early on. John Rankin had to clear off the line in the opening minutes, Jon Daly had a shot on the turn off target, Fraser Aird shot wide, and then – the most glaring chance of all – Dean Shiels steered a left-foot shot past the post.
Shiels had been put through on goal after an Aird pass all too easily bisected the United defence, which had been pressing too high. He should at least have got his shot on target, and if he had scored we could have seen a very different type of game emerge.
As it was, United soon scored themselves, from a similar sort of move. Gavin Gunning’s powerful header from midfield cut out most of the Rangers defence, and Stuart Armstrong was the beneficiary as he ran on to the ball and shot powerfully past Steve Simonsen. Nadir Ciftci was in an offside position as his team-mate burst through, but did enough to convince referee Bobby Madden that he was an innocent bystander merely trying to walk back onside.
Rangers correctly stuck to their game plan in the face of that blow, and continued to come close. The swirling wind flummoxed Cierzniak when Nicky Law delivered a long, looping cross, and the goalkeeper was relieved to see the crossbar come to his rescue. The Pole was again left exposed by his defence when Aird burst through and cushioned a ball back to Daly, but the former United striker failed to control his sidefooted shot, which went badly off target.
Aird was Rangers’ best player at that stage of the game, and probably remained so until he was surprisingly replaced by Nicky Clark with half an hour to play. Law and Ian Black looked more like the players they had been in the SPL with Motherwell and Hearts respectively, and Arnold Peralta’s tenacious recovery of possession was impressive on occasion, even if it was offset by his poor distribution.
But even during their opponents’ better spells, United had something in reserve. With John Rankin and man of the match Paul Paton anchoring central midfield, that front quartet were set free to improvise, and all of them had a hand in their team’s second goal. Nadir Ciftci chased down a ball that Richard Foster should have thumped to safety, Ryan Gauld raced along the byeline, Stuart Armstrong turned the ball into the path of Gary Mackay-Steven, and his shot found the net via a deflection off the hapless Bilel Mohsni.
Rangers pulled one back shortly before half-time when Cierzniak fumbled a Steven Smith free kick into his net at the near post, but United were still in the driving seat and looked set to cut loose in the second half.
Instead, a match that had begun at a furious pace became becalmed for a while, with little of note happening for quarter of an hour.
There was a harbinger of what was to come from Simonsen when he hesitated on his way out of the box to deal with a through ball, but although Armstrong got there first, his lob went over the bar. At the other end, Cierzniak redeemed himself by getting a hand to a deflected Smith free kick.
That was as close as Rangers came to equalising, and with seven minutes left Ciftci made sure of the win. A Foster passback put Simonsen under pressure, but the veteran goalkeeper had time to adopt a safety-first approach.
Instead, he had a horribly heavy first touch, allowing Ciftci to nick in and go round him before steering the ball into the empty net.