BEMOANING the effect of penalties on the outcome of matches involving his side has become a familiar theme for Jackie McNamara.

Before last night, his Dundee United side had had six spot-kicks awarded against them in just nine games, something which had contributed to their disappointing run of form over the festive period. However, it seems their misfortune from 12 yards is not restricted to their own area.

Twice against Hibernian last night, a United player stood over the ball on the spot. Twice they failed. And for all that Ben Williams, has something of a reputation for saving penalties, the Easter Road goalkeeper needed to do little to deny Nadir Ciftci, whose effort trundled towards him, and even less to thwart Gary Mackay-Steven, who lashed the ball over the crossbar.

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Fortunately for the errant United duo, their misses did not prevent McNamara's side recording a 3-1 triumph and a fourth consecutive victory to maintain their hopes of catching Aberdeen, who now sit seven points ahead of them in second place in the SPFL Premiership. "You can't underestimate the importance of that momentum," said Simon Donnelly, the assistant manager. "It gives you belief and confidence."

The Tannadice side, who were without the injured Ryan Gauld and John Souttar - who are now unlikely to join up with the Scotland under-21s - were not at their best but did not need to be to overcome their limp hosts, who could point towards the refereeing decisions that resulted not only in the two penalties but also the dismissal of Tom Taiwo.

Hibs must, however, recognise their own inadequacies, too; apart from a fortuitous goal, Sam Stanton's late free kick was their only attempt of note. United, conversely, spurned a succession of chances, with their first opening becoming shrouded amid the mist of anger that descended on Easter Road at the end of the opening quarter. When Ryan Dow was checked by Paul Hanlon at the edge of the area, it appeared the visitors would have a free kick. Referee Euan Norris seemed less sure, taking advice from assistant Stuart Macauley before gesturing towards the penalty spot. Bedlam ensued.

One group of irate Hibs players made for the assistant while another delegation congregated around Norris, the result being a yellow card for Ryan McGivern and a seething atmosphere as Ciftci stood over the ball preparing to take the kick. The backdrop was intimidating but that does not explain the weakness of the Turk's penalty, on to which Williams was able to flop.

Some players might have been spooked by such a failure but Ciftci soon gathered himself to give United the lead. The 22-year-old was first thwarted by a fine Williams save but the goalkeeper was helpless when the brawny forward shrugged aside Hanlon to retrieve a long ball and showed the presence of mind to cut inside Michael Nelson before placing a composed finish out of Williams' reach.

Hibs had no legitimate quarrel at finding themselves behind, given their threat was limited to the odd teasing delivery. However, Terry Butcher's side were able to retreat indoors with something to show for their efforts after one last corner forced a mistake from Radoslaw Cierzniak.

The Polish goalkeeper had waved unconvincingly at an earlier cross but, unperturbed, charged from his line again to push clear an Alex Harris corner. Unfortunately for Cierzniak, he succeeded only in slapping the ball against Jordon Forster, whose oblivious intervention redirected it over the line.

Given that they could have really done with three points to further their claims for a place in the upper half of the table, you might have expected Hibs to take succour from such fortune. Instead, though, they continued to perform meekly.

Ciftci was denied by another sharp Williams save before the home defenders again allow themselves to be bullied, this time Gavin Gunning being permitted to rise unhindered to meet a Mackay-Steven corner and plant a header into the net.

Three minutes later, the points should have been put out of Hibs' reach as United were awarded a second penalty. This time, Gunning's legs were swiped from underneath him by a rash Nelson challenge and Mackay-Steven assumed the responsibility only to fizz his effort high over the bar.

The Scotland internationalist yelped in frustration but he need not have fretted as Hibs continued to perform impotently even before the harsh dismissal of Taiwo for a second booking with 20 minutes remaining.

Given the generosity with which Norris was brandishing cards, it was inevitable someone would leave the fray early and it was the English midfielder who went for an innocuous nibble on Paul Paton.

The disparity in numbers allowed United to become even more expansive, as they shunted the ball around to a chorus of olés, and it was scant surprise when a third goal came.

Andy Robertson made ground down the left and skidded a low ball towards the near post, where substitute Farid El Alagui diverted past Williams. "It could have been a lot worse," Butcher said "Only two things went for us and those were the missed penalties. It was not pleasant and not acceptable."