Inverness 0-0 St Johnstone: Euro battle still alive

TERRY Butcher’s European contenders preserved a five-point gap on rivals St Johnstone last night but could see the cushion slashed today after stalemate in the Highlands.

In a competitive scrap of a match, lacking in any real spark of invention, Saints kept the battle for top three Europa League qualification well and truly alive.

It was a classic case of two very competent and committed outfits cancelling each other out.

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Inverness made it seven games unbeaten while Saints have lost just one in the same period of time.

Saints perhaps swayed it on possession, but the best chances of the 90 minutes fell to the home side with Aaron Doran unable to score when one-on-one with Alan Mannus.

Mannus also thwarted Ross Draper at close range much later in the second half.

Both sides had key absentees. The hosts were without powerful defender Gary Warren after his knee ligament injury suffered in the Highland derby.

Influential Murray Davidson was also a big miss for Saints after breaking down with an ankle injury during the week.

The pressure was off in one sense with top-six football now assured for both outfits, St Johnstone’s late equaliser having sealed the deal against Dundee United on Monday.

But the focus, evidently, had quickly shifted to European aspirations. A lofty finish still lies within both sides’ grasp and, from the off, there was a good intensity to play and no hint of end-of-season sloppiness.

A warm evening in Inverness gave way to cold, crisp skies – and sharp movement to match on the field.

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Mehdi Abeid, on-loan from Newcastle United, had an early pop at goal for Saints which whistled dangerously close to Antonio Reguero’s upright.

The young midfielder looked sharp in a bright opening few minutes for Saints before the hosts settled.

Owain Tudur Jones produced Caley Thistle’s first attempt at goal and the big Welshman went even closer with a powerful stab from outside the box, tipped wide by Mannus, after 12 minutes.

Andrew Shinnie also nodded just over from six yards from Ross Draper’s delivery as the home side began to look dangerous.

Saints held enough menace, themselves, though.

Steven MacLean won the ball easily from young Inverness defender Danny Devine after a poor touch and slid a pass to Rowan Vine on the left side of the box.

Vine sensed blood, but his determined low drive was parried well by Spaniard Reguero.

Clear chances were thin on the ground but Hibs-bound Liam Craig, earlier booked, made a tremendous surge past Graeme Shinnie into the right of the home box after 25 minutes.

As the Saints midfielder – who grabbed the equaliser against Untied – dug in a low cross, Reguero was again sharp down to save.

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Josh Meekings did a tremendous mopping-up job on Vine as the Perth striker honed in on goal after 38 minutes.

It was finely-balanced but Abeid wriggled into space and whipped a tremendous long-range effort only just wide with half-time approaching.

Early in the second half, the young French-born Algerian was set up after Vine’s grit and perseverance on the left.

Teed up square on goal, Abeid’s low-strike swerved through a ruck of players but was stopped by the one-handed reaction of Reguero.

A poor spell for the hosts ended with Tudur Jones’ attempt parried by Mannus and Shinnie then stabbing just over the bar from Billy McKay’s supply after the hour. Soon after, Aaron Doran broke at pace free behind the Saints defence and was about to pull the trigger as Mannus shut him down superbly.

The pendulum was swinging in Caley Thistle’s favour as Shinnie swept a shot just over from distance.

Saints thought they had opened after 71 minutes but Vine’s finish was in vain with play called back for a foul on Meekings.

With ten minutes left, St Johnstoine retained slightly the upper hand and a strike by substitute Nigel Hasselbaink looked net-bound in a crowded box before striking the legs of team-mate Frazer Wright.

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There was another chance soon afterwards when Hasselbaink was floored by David Raven sharp left of the home box.

The otherwise excellent Abeid swung his free-kick far too long.

Caley Thistle, though, went agonisingly close with a header from Ross Draper parried by the firm fists of Mannus close-in from a Nick Ross cross.

Inverness: Reguero, Raven, Graeme Shinnie, Devine, Meekings, Doran, Foran, Draper, Tudur Jones, Andrew Shinnie (Ross 81),McKay. Subs not used: Mathieson, Polworth, Taylor, Christie.

St Johnstone: Mannus, MacKay, Callum Davidson (Scobbie 25),Wright, Anderson, Tade (Edwards 67),Abeid, Millar, Craig, Vine (Hasselbaink 78),MacLean. Subs not used: Tuffey, Cregg, McCracken, Caddis.

Referee: K Clancy

Attendance: 3,744