Motherwell 5 - 1 St Johnstone: Steelmen throw down gauntlet

THE prospects of Motherwell contesting a Champions League qualifier next season moved a whole heap closer as St Johnstone were removed from that equation in devastating fashion by Stuart McCall’s men yesterday.

Scorers: Motherwell - Higdon (17, pen), Law (20), Murphy (52), Ojamaa (83, 87); St Johnstone - Craig (59)

Bookings: St Johnstone - Anderson, Maybury, Davidson

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Now five points clear of Dundee United with three games to play, and eight in front of the Perth side, the Fir Park men might only be a matter of days away from guaranteeing third place in the Scottish Premier League. A finish that, because of Rangers’ financial problems, will secure entry to a place they would have considered make believe last summer.

Not that McCall, who smiled in acknowledging that the five-goal trouncing had made for a “good day” for his team, would countenance his men raising a glass to such a growing reality. At least not ahead of their trip to Tynecastle on Tuesday, 24 hours before United go to Ibrox.

“I said to the lads they will be getting a breathalyser test tomorrow. I don’t want them touching alcohol, they have too big a game. I’ll have a glass of red wine for each and every one of them,” he said. There was plenty for him to toast. McCall rightly delighted in winger Chris Humphreys delivering an “outstanding showing”. And in the fact that, having reassembled the front six who had started the season so well for him, goals from Michael Higdon, from the spot, Nicky Law and the recalled Jamie Murphy put them on course for an emphatic victory, brought up by a late double from substitute Henrik Ojamaa, that should see them end it in exalted fashion, following a four-game run that claimed them only one point.

Humphreys set the home side on their way by winning a 16th-minute penalty. The attacker admitted afterwards Steven Anderson had been “unfortunate” slipped in front of him and he couldn’t stop himself falling into the defender. The award fair hacked off St Johnstone manager Steve Lomas, who on one hand declared that it changed the momentum, yet on the other said he wasn’t blaming referee Bobby Madden for a 5-1 defeat he lamented was the product of the “worst performance” in his six-month tenure.

“In my opinion – which I have to say for [compliance officer] Vince Lunny – it wasn’t a penalty. I have to ask Bobby. I passed the referee’s room and they were having a nice laugh in there, you would have thought they were having a party.” Yesterday was the wake for St Johnstone’s Champions League qualifying hopes, Lomas mourning the loss of goals caused by a “multitude of sins” and stating the only “positive” was that merely two minutes of overtime.

Humphreys hammered down the right to lethal effect, carving his way into the box to roll a cross practically along the goalline for Law to turn in four minutes after Higdon had despatched the penalty in a fashion Sergio Ramos will dream about. Shortly after the interval Humphreys was provider for Murphy to capitalise on all the time and space he need to tuck away a shot on the turn before Ojamaa swept the ball in from the edge of the area with his first touch eight minutes from the end of time, and then waltzed his way past bedraggled and dispirited opponents before beating Alan Mannus with a low drive that squirmed under him.

While Motherwell fielded the men that have pretty much made them this season, St Johnstone lacked them and, jeez, did it show. Missing Francisco Sandaza after his adolescent red-card against Dundee United the previous week, and with strike partner Cillian Sheridan, Dave Mackay and Callum Davidson, Lomas pointed out he was without his first choice centre-forwards and full-backs.

McCall, meanwhile, showed proper caution about making predictions how the season will end up with Motherwell’s last game against Dundee United at Tannadice. “United are too good a team and we have too much respect for them to take anything for granted. I watched a lot of the Hearts game [at Tannadice] and they were excellent. Their players will all be fighting to be involved the cup final team and after that we have Rangers in their last game at Ibrox this season.” If, or more likely when, Motherwell clinch third place, it will be because of their own strengths and not the weaknesses of others.