ST JOHNSTONE have scored eight times without reply in their last three meetings with Dundee United, winning on each occasion and taking more points from them than any other team in the SPFL Premiership over the course of the campaign.

Furthermore, no player has breached the United defence more often than Stevie May, his goal on Saturday taking his tally against those in tangerine to five for the term. Yet still, when these sides meet in next month's William Hill Scottish Cup final, Jackie McNamara's team are widely expected to lift the trophy.

Even St Johnstone's players seem to subscribe to such spuriousness.

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"Ah, but they're definitely still favourites …" insisted midfielder Paddy Cregg when it was put to him that his side's fine record give them a psychological advantage ahead of the May 17 showpiece.

Whether the Irishman was playing silly beggars or whether he genuinely believes it remains to be seen, but what is not in doubt is that the Perth side have, since their 4-0 towsing at Tannadice in August, developed a strategy that not only neuters United's attacking threat but also causes great discomfort among their defenders.

"We just wanted to get in about them," said Cregg, the implication that United are not fond of the rough stuff left hanging, like a trailing leg. "You have to narrow the space between the defence and midfield so they can't get in between the lines and run at you."

At the other end, the approach is similarly prosaic but equally effective. St Johnstone prey on United's fallibility under a high ball and unease when probed in the channels, and they press ferociously from the front. "They were right on top of us and stopped us playing the football we want to play," observed John Souttar, the United defender.

The aesthetically minded McNamara is wont to refer dismissively to it as "percentage football" but it would not cause him such angst were it not effective. Indeed, that was at the crux of the row between the two managers at Tannadice last month, with Tommy Wright muttering darkly about his opposite number "disrespecting my team" and "making comments about my players" before the pair were sent to the stand.

On that occasion, the decisive goal was scored, unsurprisingly, by May, albeit his effort was going wide before goalkeeper Radoslaw Cierzniak shovelled it into his own net. However, St Johnstone's talisman was irrepressible on Saturday as he breached Paul Wright's 23-year-old club record for the most goals in a single season in the Premier League era.

Like last weekend's Scottish Cup semi-final win over Aberdeen, May's best work was done from the left, with Keith Watson consistently confounded by his movement and power. John Souttar and Gavin Gunning were equally helpless to halt a performance that should have been gilded by three or four goals, given the chances May spurned.

"The bloke's unbelievable," said Cregg of the 21-year-old. "I lived with him last season and saw how hard he worked; even though he was [on loan at Hamilton Academical] he was at the gym three nights a week. I watch him doing shooting after training and think, 'wow, how good is he?' and he's only going to get better. He's a humble guy, very well mannered and there's not a bit of 'charlieness' in him … he's definitely one of the best young lads I've seen and I was at Arsenal. I think he's good enough to play in the Premier League in England."

Souttar, while less effusive, declared May as one of the best in the division. Of more interest, though, were his observations on his own side. United, having won nine of their previous 12 games, were abject - uncertain in defence, outmatched in midfield and impotent in attack - as their designs on finishing second or even third in the league were torn asunder. A seven-point gap now separates them from the top three.

Their 17-year-old centre-back had his own theory as to why. "The way we play, we need to be brave on the ball," he said. "Anyone can go into a 50-50 tackle but not everyone can take the ball off the goalkeeper or take it in a tight area in midfield. That's the meaning of being brave, for me, and I don't think there were a lot of boys doing that."

Souttar does still retain the courage of his convictions, though, insisting that United can still win the Scottish Cup. He is not alone in that belief, but perhaps the events of Saturday might just cause a few to revise their expectations.