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Dundee united 3 Kilmarnock 2: Eremenko provides a vital spark but static charge remains

THE suggestion yesterday that it might not be easy to eclipse Alexei Eremenko sounded initially like an impolite joke.

It was a remark born in the press box, but which related instead to the challenge facing Dundee United as the Finn juggled the ball on his knee inside his own half, with Kilmarnock holding their own inside Tannadice. The Ayrshire side were only subdued by three goals and a good deal more hard work from a United team which has risen to fourth in the table.

That was the micro-story of the match, although the narrative would focus at first on Eremenko, who made his first start for Kilmarnock after returning to the club last month.

The forward is still in possession of the same weighty ability to retain possession and an ample backside, both making him appear at times out of place in Scottish football.

He would need only one of those traits to enliven his side yesterday. An early backheel flick opened a slender gap in the United defence through which he was unable to follow, Rory McKenzie instead breaking into the penalty area only to be crowded out quickly.

Eremenko squeezed another shot at goal after half an hour and sought to wring more out of his team-mates throughout the afternoon - one attempt to find Robbie Muirhead on the edge of the box ending with United on a breakaway and the Finland international instructing his young team-mate to drop off and into space.

His authority, however, is secured more by his talent. A knockdown from McKenzie after 40 minutes found Eremenko ambling around 25 yards from goal and with a look of nonchalance only for the Kilmarnock forward to clip a half-volley into the bottom corner of the net.

It was timely since United had edged ahead half an hour earlier, but also served as a reminder that Eremenko is likely to be a valuable member of a team that still sits just four points above the relegation play-off place.

"We were delighted to get 90 minutes out of him because he's worked really hard," said Kilmarnock manager Allan Johnston. "Since he's come in his attitude has been different class and you can see the ability he has. He sees passes other people don't see."

He retains a liability which must be accommodated, though, and which yesterday was endured. Eremenko had not played competitively since leaving Kazakh club Kairat in November and that was a story played out early in the first half.

He was booked for a late challenge on Gary Mackay-Steven, while it had been a lax moment on the ball which invited Nadir Ciftci to arc a pass towards Mackay-Steven after 10 minutes, the winger stealing in to score after Jackson Irvine scuffed at a back pass.

An early breakthrough, it threatened to expose Kilmarnock to the sort of heavy defeat suffered on their last trip to Tannadice, a 5-2 Scottish Cup drubbing which would become just one step in a run of form comprising six victories and 22 goals for United.

This league win was not carved from similar dominance and had to be chiselled out of a much hardier Kilmarnock side. They went ahead after 63 minutes when Kris Boyd lobbed in his 16th goal of the campaign, but Curtis Good waited just two minutes before applying his napper to a cross to draw United level.

John Rankin then left the Ayrshire team on their backsides when he collected a neat pass from Ciftci and whipped a shot high into the net from a remarkably tight angle. "I think Rankin had about 20 shots," said United manager Jackie McNamara. "He was outstanding for us."

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