THOSE associated with Inverness Caledonian Thistle have grown unaccustomed to Saturday evenings spent regretting missed opportunities.
Be it scoring in every game since early May or taking advantage of the stumbles of others to clamber to the upper echelons of the SPL, Terry Butcher's side have rarely let their chances slip.
Last night, then, will have been difficult. Not only did the Highlanders fail to find the net for the first time in 28 competitive matches, they also failed to fully exploit Celtic's defeat to Hibernian by claiming a victory that would have reduced the gap between the two clubs to just four points. "Someone said to me that the treble is still on," Butcher said. "I'd love to have some of what they'd been drinking."
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However, the manager added: "After 26 games we've only lost three times and are second top. It's incredible and if you'd said in July we would be there it would have been beyond our wildest dreams. We're there now, though, and we'll fight tooth and nail to stay there."
That Inverness emerged with only a point is down, in part, to St Johnstone's diligent defending, which prevented the visitors finding fluency and creating the welter of chances that has enabled them to be the league's top scorers. Even Billy McKay, with an astonishing tally of 12 goals in his last eight matches, was unable to breach the Perth defence.
He spurned his clearest opening by angling a shot wide inside the first few minutes, and flicked Philip Roberts' downward header over the bar as the game edged towards a conclusion.
Other clear chances were scarce. Aaron Doran and Graeme Shinnie exercised Alan Mannus with efforts from distance, but perhaps the closest Inverness came was with a splendid break from Andrew Shinnie inside the first 10 minutes. He accepted a McKay flick, broke beyond Frazer Wright and Liam Craig and stumbled into the area, only to prod his shot at Mannus.
The goalkeeper was in the right place just after the hour, too, dashing bravely from goal to deny Ross Draper after the towering Englishman burst in the area. "Extra shooting practice tomorrow," Butcher said. For St Johnstone, the frustration is familiar. Earlier in the week, Steve Lomas bemoaned the profligacy that had caused his side to draw five of their previous eight matches. Only three of their SPL rivals have scored fewer goals than the Perth side despite the attacking options they have.
Yesterday, Steven MacLean and Gregory Tade were deployed in the striking roles, but neither could disturb the established pattern. Countless times, the Frenchman would spin his marker adroitly before misjudging a pass, rise prodigiously to meet a cross only to misjudge his header, or stumble after wriggling into a shooting position.
His one genuine sight of goal spoke to such inconsistencies. Tade intelligently found a pocket of space to accept a Rowan Vine pass only to jab his shot against Antonio Reguero's legs. "You could say it was a good save," Lomas said. "But in tight games like that you've got to take chances like that one."
Particularly as his team's other opportunities were mainly speculative. Craig had a rasping free kick beaten clear by a startled Reguero, Peter Pawlett dribbled an effort wide after an alacritous break, and Owain Tudor Jones nudged a David McCracken header off the line. "It was set up to be two attacking teams, but it was a bit of an anti-climax, I think," Lomas said. "We can at least take a positive from being the first team to stop Inverness scoring, I suppose, but we really need to get a win."