St Johnstone’s top-six hopes are left hanging by a thread as United warm up for their Active Nation Scottish Cup semi-final against Raith Rovers by moving eight points clear of Hibs in the race for third place.
The Perth club went into this Tayside derby at McDiarmid Park knowing a win would take them above Hearts in sixth spot and they had the better of the 90 minutes.
But, after leading scorer Liam Craig missed a penalty, Jon Daly struck late to secure a slightly fortunate win for the Tangerines and deal St Johnstone’s aspirations to finish the right side of the split line a probably terminal blow.
In front of watching Raith boss John McGlynn and assistant Paul Smith, United were not at the top of their form but they still managed to fashion a result that leaves them in great nick to finish best of the rest and only five points adrift of Celtic.
Boss Peter Houston admitted they are now casting an eye in the Hoops’ direction.
“We’ve been looking behind us at what Hibs and Motherwell have been doing,” he said, “and despite being eight points clear, we haven’t achieved anything.Hard-fought”We’ll be looking both ways now. We’re not that good that we can look at the next three or four games and think we are going to take ‘x’ points from them. But we’ll have a wee pop at it.
“We knew this would be a hard-fought match but defensively we were magnificent.
“We coped with everything they threw at us and at the same time we also carried a threat.
“The goalkeeper has given us a lift with the penalty save but we’ve gone on to score a great goal and I felt merited the win.”
The only negative from the evening for Houston’s side was the calf injury suffered by Andy Webster, who limped out of the game early in the second period making him doubtful for Sunday’s semi-final at Hampden.
“Our squad could be tested against Raith because Garry Kenneth is suspended and Webbie may not be fit,” said Houston.
“Andy sensibly came off rather than risk further damage but he’s had bother with his calf a number of times this season and we’ll have to monitor him over the next 48 hours.”
The loss leaves Saints still three points adrift of the Jam Tarts who need only draw at home to Kilmarnock on Saturday to pip them for the top-six place.
But boss Derek McInnes, who takes his side to Pittodrie to face Aberdeen the following day, was not downcast.
“Any defeat where you lose late in the game is sore and when there is so much riding on it the disappointment is all the greater,” he said.Fantastic”But Dundee United are a good side on a fantastic run and we’ve shown we’re not far away from them.
“It was very close tonight but there are defining moments in games.
“Unfortunately we missed ours along with two or three other things around the box and have been punished for that.
“But I can’t complain about the players’ efforts.
“We can play better than we did but it is easier said than done playing well against good players. We’ll pick ourselves up from this.
“Hearts can only throw it away now but we’ll go to Pittodrie on Sunday and look to get a result.”
As dominant as they were early on, Saints forced Dusan Pernis to make just the one save, when he watched a swerving 25-yarder from Craig all the way before taking no chances in turning the ball over.
And it was Graeme Smith who was called upon to produce the first real stop of the night, blocking Webster’s powerful effort.
There was little between the teams for the remainder of the opening period, although Saints wasted a couple of excellent chances to get their noses in front.
First Michael Duberry knocked down a Filipe Morais free-kick for Jody Morris, who, from a central position on the edge of the area, dragged his shot six yards wide.
Then Cillian Sheridan’s attempt to steer home a low cross from Danny Grainger was well held by Pernis.Let-downTruth be told, though, after the fireworks of last week when St Johnstone racked up their biggest ever win over Rangers and United put four past Hibs at Easter Road, the first half in particular was a bit of a let-down.
There was no quarter given by either team. Duberry (foul on Conway) was cautioned and Grainger should have joined him in the book for a late challenge on Danny Swanson as one or two meaty tackles went in.
But, apart from a handful of excellent deliveries from wide areas on the part of Morais and Craig, there was not a great deal of quality on show.
Saints remained in the ascendancy following the break and when Pernis could only claw a Morais cross into the path of Duberry the former Chelsea and Leeds United defender should have done better than slice a shot high and wide of the target.
That, however, was nothing compared to the opportunity St Johnstone passed up on 69 minutes after Paul Dixon’s clumsy challenge on Dave Mackay saw them awarded a penalty.
Whether he was unsettled by having to respot the ball before taking the kick, Craig’s attempt to plant his finish in Pernis’s bottom left-hand corner was thwarted by a terrific one-handed save by the keeper.
And with seven minutes remaining Morgaro Gomis beat Craig on the left and his wonderful cross was bullet-headed home by the unmarked Daly.
Craig and Gomis were booked after the break along with Kenny Deuchar.
And there was late controversy when close pals Grainger and Daly got their legs tangled on the edge of the area as Gomis looked to play the Irishman in.
Referee Steve Conroy, however, ruled the contact had been accidental and waved play on when, had he awarded a free-kick, he would surely have had to issue the Saints player with at least a caution.