St Johnstone 1 - 2 Trakai: Saints left with it all to do

St Johnstone went behind twice in the home leg defeat. Picture: PA
St Johnstone went behind twice in the home leg defeat. Picture: PA
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In the past there was the excuse that players were having to play these games too soon into the new season. Maybe it was a case of this one coming too soon after the old term.

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Speaking before the game, St Johnstone manager Tommy Wright insisted that would not pose his men a problem. Having had only 19 days of a close season, the players, he said, had enjoyed enough of a breather but had not had time to lose their match sharpness. They were, he said, ready for the European challenge.

But they will now have to travel to Lithuania on 6 July and overcome a 2-1 deficit.

As is so often the case, there was hope, expectation and a degree of confidence oozing from the fans as they funnelled into McDiarmid Park but these days there is also a growing realisation that Scottish clubs can no longer consider themselves firm favourites against any continental challengers. There have been too many instances where campaigns were rendered over before they really began.

That possibility reared its head with just 13 minutes on the clock. A cross played in from the flank by Valdemar Borovskij to Murphy Dorley and while he couldn’t get it, it rolled tantalisingly out of the reach of the lunging Richard Foster’s outstretched leg and, with the defender grounded, Maksin Maksimov had space and time to stroke the ball past Zander Clack.

It was a sore one but one to which St Johnstone contributed. After a positive start by the home side they began to sit deeper and deeper. It was not the way their gaffer had envisaged it. Having had the Lithuanian side watched, he believed that while they gave little away in their domestic league, they were rarely put under pressure with teams sitting off them and giving them time on the ball. Technically decent, the Perth manager did not want to afford them that luxury on his patch and had sent his men out with the intention of taking the game to them.

But painful experience tells us that when it comes to Scottish football, the best-laid plans oft go awry.

Working to restore parity and get themselves back into the game, Steven MacLean tried to capitalise on a 19th minute cutback to him at the corner of the FK Trakai box, but his curled-in effort did not have enough pace or movement to pose Ignas Plukas any real conundrum and, with no-one following in to challenge, the visiting keeper was able to get behind the effort without any stress.

On the touchline Wright was looking more agitated than anyone in the travelling ranks and rightly so. His head was in his hands in the 26th minute when first a strike by Blair Alston, left, was parried by the keeper and then Graham Cummins saw his follow-up blocked by Valdemar Borovskij before he had another stab at it and ballooned his effort over the bar.

In the 30th minute Richard Foster had an effort deflected narrowly wide and while FK Trakai looked more comfortable on the ball, the Scottish side did have some chances. But it took until the 32nd minute for them to finally find a way past Plukas. It came from a Liam Craig corner and Joe Shaughnessey stuck out a boot at the back post and stabbed the ball over the line from close range.

There was more woe in the 36th minute though, as the visitors inflicted more damage. A seemingly innocuous pass was slipped inside by Murphy Dorley and Vaidotas Silenas unleashed a screaming shot into the postage stamp corner of Clark’s goal to leave the Saints with the unwanted task of hunting down their guests all over again in the hopes of keeping themselves in the tie.

They did have the ball in the net in the 80th minute but the referee decided Plukas had been impeded and disallowed the goal.

Having picked up some silly bookings for mouthing off early in the second half, the Lithuanians would ultimately pay for that. As Silenas followed up his yellow card for dissent with another for a foul on substitute Stefan Scougall with just under ten minutes remaining. The Saints new signing had already contributed by setting up Craig but his shot soared over the target and then the former Livingston man had a pop himself only to see the post and keeper combine to deny him.

With an extra man advantage St Johnstone threw everything at their guests but Cummins was again left to ponder what might have been when his point-blank effort was blasted right at the keeper with minutes remaining.

The tie isn’t over but the crowd trudged out feeling far less optimistic than they had been on arrival.