Aberdeen will head to Partick Thistle on Friday still three points adrift of Celtic after a controversy-packed 3-1 defeat by opponents increasingly shaping up as a bogey team.
In a game strewn with contested penalty claims and incidents, the Dons fell short – and Inverness climbed into the top six above St Johnstone on goal difference.
Defeat shattered the Dons’ impressive 12-game unbeaten run – featuring nine wins – dating back to the Celtic loss in late October. Inverness remain the only team they have failed to beat in the league.
Craig Storie was influential for Aberdeen in the opening moments. First the young midfielder expertly fed Graeme Shinnie on the left for a ferocious strike that seemed to be tipped on to the top of the bar by home goalkeeper Owain Fon Williams. Referee Willie Collum awarded a goal kick.
The official’s mistake mattered little in the very next attack, seven minutes in, when Storie again released a perfectly-weighted pass to Adam Rooney on the right side of the penalty spot. Rooney, with Danny Devine straining to challenge, lashed a ten-yard shot through the defender’s legs and inside the left-hand post for his 19th goal of the season.
Inverness were the only team the Dons hadn’t beaten this season, though, and manager Derek McInnes must have known it would be no simple stroll. After 18 minutes, from a break on the right, Liam Polworth’s pass into Iain Vigurs’ path looked set to be cut out by Ash Taylor. But the big defender clumsily stood on the ball, tumbling to ground and to his horror, Vigurs, with no hint of hesitancy, levelled with a sweetly-taken strike.
Carl Tremarco took a booking soon after for the hosts, bringing Jonny Hayes crashing at full flight near the edge of the box. Niall McGinn’s free-kick whizzed a whisker wide of the top right-hand corner.
From there, the match flowed energetically, but with a lack of precision by both sides preventing further scoring. There was a blow for Aberdeen as Hayes exited with a suspected hamstring problem, replaced by Peter Pawlett.
It was shaping up as a dire night for Dons defender Taylor as Caley Thistle took a highly-controversial 51st minute lead.
When Ross Draper worked a one-two with Roberts at the edge of the away box, Taylor raised a high foot to challenge the big Inverness midfielder. He seemed to swipe only fresh air, but as Draper tumbled, referee Collum pointed to the spot.
Greg Tansey, with poetic timing given the publicity surrounding his desire to move to Aberdeen in late January, sent keeper Scott Brown leaping the wrong way for his eighth goal of the season.
The Dons’ technical area was ablaze with fury, Collum having also played a controversial part in big decisions in the clubs’ Boxing Day tussle – but there was more to come.
After 65 minutes, Roberts’ cross from the right was touched on by the head of the hapless Taylor but only as far as Tremarco, who ghosted in to net a superb far-post header – his first goal since joining Inverness in July 2013. Howls for offside brought Collum into discussions with linesman Graham McNeillie, who initially flagged, but to more Dons fury, it stood. McInnes’s anger only heightened as Horner seemed to catch Shinnie high in the box.
The hosts drew deep and defensive, ready to see out the final 15 minutes and did so barring another penalty claim – this time for a Draper challenge on Taylor. The Dons threat fizzled out. Their anger and sense of grievance might take longer to fade.
INVERNESS: Fon Williams, Horner (Hughes 88), Warren, Devine, Tremarco; Draper, Tansey. Polworth, Roberts (Mbuyi-Mutombo 80), Vigurs, Storey (Williams 90). Subs not used: Esson, Wedderburn, Hughes, Brown.
ABERDEEN: Brown, Logan, Taylor, Reynolds, Shinnie, Storie, McLean, McGinn, Rooney, Hayes (Pawlett 27), Church (Smith 66). Subs Not Used: Collin, Considine, Flood, Robson, Ross.