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ICT 2-2 St Johnstone: Saints blow a two-goal lead after looking in play-off cruise control

Sean Welsh is tackled by Glenn Middleton.
Sean Welsh is tackled by Glenn Middleton.

The big question hanging over St Johnstone’s season has been how a team that won two cups and went toe to toe with Galatasaray could fall so far, so hard, so quickly.

The second last game of their campaign produced a big question of its own – how could a team 2-0 up which looked like putting the Premiership play-off to bed in one match end up surrendering control and their lead?

Shaun Rooney and Melker Hallberg gave Saints the sort of cushion they craved.

And the gap between second bottom of the top flight and third top of the Championship appeared vast in the making of it.

That cushion was taken away from them by Reece McAlear’s seven-minute double, however.

And Saints’ Premiership status will come down to a one-match, winner-takes-all shoot-out.

Perth fans are going to have to suffer to the very end, it seems.

The occasion demanded a controlled, aggressive, front-foot start and that’s what it got.

The first half was an utterly one-sided affair in its entirety.

With less than a minute on the clock a mishit Rooney cross caused a moment of panic for Mark Ridgers but to the Caley Thistle keeper’s relief it flew over the bar rather than under it.

There was nothing mishit about a Glenn Middleton left foot strike from the edge of the box soon after.

Ridgers was at full-stretch to tip it over the bar.

If working the goalkeeper was the pre-match message from Callum Davidson then his players were following orders superbly.

Murray Davidson and Rooney made it four attempts in the first 15 minutes.

None of those produced a goal but that was soon to change.

Hallberg delivered the sort of back post cross Rooney attacked to such spectacular effect in the double-winning campaign and he powered a header past Ridgers to break the deadlock.

A one-goal lead quickly became two.

Billy Dodds had chosen to match-up formations but it was proving to be a mistake.

Saints were cutting through the Inverness back three with ease and when Callum Hendry cut onto his left foot, the shot that followed couldn’t be held by Ridgers.

And after a six-yard box scramble, Hallberg stabbed the ball home from close range.

It was no surprise to see Dodds making a double half-time substitution.

Aaron Doran and Joe Hardy were replaced by Logan Chalmers and Austin Samuels.

It was also no surprise that the hosts switched to four at the back.

There wasn’t any sign of the changes in tactics and personnel having an instant pay-off, though.

Saints picked up where they had left off and Ridgers let a Hendry shot slip out of his grasp before he tipped it over at the second attempt.

There were a couple of other very good attacking opportunities when Davidson’s men made the Caley Thistle defence look ponderous but wrong options were chosen to shoot by Hendry.

Billy McKay had failed to make any sort of mark on the game but his failure to get hold of a simple ball to his feet nearly ended in him making his mark at the other end.

Saints swiftly countered and Middleton’s shot from the corner of the box narrowly missed the far corner.

Davidson made two changes on 69 minutes – Stevie May and Jacob Butterfield for Middleton and Hallberg.

Jeopardy returns

A game that Saints were in full control of got its jeopardy back when McAlear hit a shot high past Zander Clark from just inside the box.

The visitors had two gripes with the goal – Jamie McCart lying on the ground with a head injury in the build-up and Samuels being offside before he cut the ball back into the penalty area.

It was Saints who were the side sitting deep – or being forced back – now.

And all of a sudden 2-1 was looking like an acceptable result.

That prospect was snatched away from them by McAlear who curled a 25-yard free-kick into Clark’s top right hand corner with 10 minutes left.

There could even have been a Caley winner before the final whistle was blown had it not been for a brilliant near post intervention from Liam Gordon after Samuels again crossed from the right.

Onto Monday night at McDiarmid Park it goes, with Saints fans left hoping it’s the team that dominated for so long that turns up rather than the one left wondering what on earth had happened.

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