THERE is a purposeful stride about Dundee United these days as they pursue their European aspirations.
Last night's victory over Inverness Caledonian Thistle was their eighth in nine matches, and while the visitors went about their task with commendable gusto, they lacked the effervescence of those sporting Tangerine tops.
Second-half strikes by Ryan Gauld and Ryan Dow did for Inverness, who rallied through substitute Liam Polwort's strike, which was stunning but much too late to change the course of an absorbing game.
"I think on balance we just shaded it," said Jackie McNamara, the United manager. "When you go 2-0 up you are comfortable. "But they never really gave us anything to worry about until their lad unleashed that great strike towards the end.
"It's a great three points. We worked really hard for the win. We showed a lot of desire and guts. Ryan Dow chased a lost cause for his goal and got the rewards for that. We showed a good mentality here. I don't think there were many weaknesses. It keeps that winning mentality going, that's eight wins in nine games."
Looking ahead to the next fixture, Saturday's contest against Aberdeen, McNamara said. "It's another big game and hopefully we can get the three points. We have two lads suspended - Andrew Robertson and Nadir Ciftci - but we'll get on with it. If we win on Saturday it would give us a great lift - but there are still lots of games left between now and the end of the season."
United have a penchant for utilising their whole squad so the replacement of Brian Graham by Gauld from the line-up that beat Hearts last Friday hardly raised an eyebrow among the Tannadice faithful.
Inverness showed just one change from the team that beat Partick Thistle at the weekend, Marley Watkins coming in with Danny Williams left on the bench.
The visitors also have European aspirations, which was evident in their eagerness to attack, and Billy McKay's long-range strike was easily collected by Radowslaw Cierzniak after five minutes. The home side responded quickly with Gauld forcing Dean Brill, the Inverness goalkeeper, into a diving save.
There was delightful football in abundance, but neither side were finding a cutting edge around the penalty area, a measure of the defensive qualities on show and a rigid midfield area where the tackling was resolute.
Inverness almost broke the mould on the half-hour mark when Greg Tansey sent McKay clear in the area with an exquisite 30-yard pass inside the right-back, Mark Wilson. The Inverness striker found the target from the tightest of angles all right, but Gavin Gunning cleared the ball off the line with Cierzniak posted missing.
United found the way to goal three minutes after the interval when they exploited a loose ball from Ross Draper, the Inverness midfielder. Andrew Robertson grasped the opportunity to race forward from inside his own half before delivering wide to Stuart Armstrong. He fed the ball inside to Gauld whose initial strike was blocked on the line by Graeme Shinnie before he fired home at the second time of asking.
The goal lifted the home side and they were possibly aided by Richie Foran's retirement from proceedings with injury soon after. His place in the Inverness midfield was occupied by Polworth while, with 20 minutes remaining, Gary Mackay-Steven's fresh legs were deployed for the home side as Gauld took a rest.
By then, the Highland side were all but a spent force and, in a replay of the bizarre goal they lost to United in the William Hill Scottish Cup quarter-final earlier this month, a defensive blunder between Brill and Josh Meekings ended with the goalkeeper kicking the ball off the legs of a tenacious Dow and into the net.
With eight minutes left, however, the visitors struck back. Polworth produced a spectacular 30-yard strike that rendered Cierzniak an onlooker. It was all too late for Inverness and United never looked like surrendering their lead.
"We gave the game away, that's for sure," said John Hughes, the Inverness manager. "The second goal saw us imploding after putting so much into the game. Brill came in after the game and apologised and I accept that. He trains like a world champion and has been outstanding since I came to the club. He's a fantastic character and has great spirit. He has kept us in plenty of games.
"However, you can't win a match if you're giving away goals like that. We need to be a little bit more professional in our decision-making.But we haven't given up on our hopes to win a place in Europe. There are still six games to go and we'll be fighting every step of the way."