If form were carried over from last season, this would have been something of a stroll for Dundee United.

In the four SPFL Premiership fixtures between these sides over the course of last term, the Tannadice side scored 14 goals to Motherwell's four with the hosts inflicting a 5-1 drubbing at Tannadice in April.

Those statistics might not have reached the ears of Mario Bilate, one of United's newcomers, and a substitute for the final 25 minutes, but he ensured that Motherwell's bogey team kept their hot streak alive. His thunderbolt of a strike eight minutes from the end did the only damage of the night and took the points for his new employer.

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There had been pre-match hints that Gary Mackay-Steven might not make United's starting line-up because of an ankle injury from the win at Aberdeen on Sunday. Such a fear was buried when the team-sheet showed that the home side were unchanged from that Pittodrie thriller. It was not what the Motherwell manager, Stuart McCall, wanted to hear.

Lionel Ainsworth's absence from the Motherwell side following their win over Tommy Craig's St Mirren offered a start to Jack Leitch in midfield as the visitors sought to remind the home team that they would be a more stoic foe than Aberdeen were in dropping three goals.

There was certainly a desire by the Fir Park side to flex their muscles early on and to put United on the back foot and when Josh Law accepted Leitch's corner-kick on the left, his sizzler of a strike from 22 yards cracked against the crossbar of Radoslaw Cierzniak, the Tannadice goalkeeper, a reminder of the need for full concentration.

But while the tempo fell short of what 2500 United fans witnessed three days earlier, there was a patience in their build-up play, evident when Ryan Dow sent Mackay-Steven clear down the right only for the winger to fire his shot wide after he had gone past Zaine Francis-Angol and into the area.

He succeeded in turning the full-back once more to lay the ball off for John Rankin, whose right-foot strike lacked sufficient power, offering Dan Twardzik, the Motherwell goalkeeper, his first meaningful save after 37 minutes of play.

It became clear that as the interval beckoned it would need a monumental defensive blunder or perhaps a flash of attacking brilliance for a goal to be fashioned from two tactically-aware sides cancelling each other out, certainly whenever the final third was reached.

The visitors found there was no way past Paul Paton and Rankin, defensive protectors in a well organised home side and McCall and Jackie McNamara, his counterpart, had to re-think their strategy for part two of a game that appeared to be heading for stalemate.

Strangely, the United players spent their break working out in front of their own supporters as their manager pondered his attacking options. But it was the visitors who altered their line-up as David Ferguson relieved Francis-Angol of his duties at the restart, only for his name to soon enter referee Kevin Clancy's book when Mackay-Steven became the victim of his over-zealous challenge.

McNamara's band of players managed to increase their influence on the game and Nadir Ciftci was invited to assert himself more which he did with a useful shot inside the area which was blocked by Stephen McManus as the United support screamed for a penalty.

The Tannadice management clearly felt Ciftci needed help and, with 65 minutes played, they introduced Bilate for Keith Watson with Paton moving to full-back.

The visitors remained calm in the face of a series of attacks and when they broke and Lee Erwin placed the ball in the United net, the home crowd fell silent until they realised he had been been flagged offside.

Moments later, hearts were in mouths for another reason. Connor Townsend, a more than useful replacement for Andy Robertson and a loan signing as part of the youngster's transfer to Hull City, raced to the byline and hit a low ball across goal, but one that was booted away by appropriately positioned McManus.

Then, Mackay-Steven's pass across the area looked as if would be the beginning of a breakthrough for United as his pass into the six-yard box was perfectly weighted for Paton, but he fired over the bar.

Two minutes later, Bilate - perhaps weary of seeing too many of his team-mates try to dribble the ball into the net - took matters into his own hands and caught Twardzik unawares with a 25-yard thunderbolt. "It was a fantastic goal, worthy of winning any match," said McNamara.

McCall concurred. "It was a fantastic strike from a really good player to win the game. We were [kept in the loop] about him in the summer but he was out of our price range and if they can bring someone like him on as a substitute, it shows you how strong United can be."