James McFadden might have gathered all the attention but perhaps Motherwell might have been better served paying heed to Johnny Russell, the Dundee United attacker gilding a performance of promise with the only goal of this twice-postponed contest to ruin the Scotland internationalist's homecoming.
Ultimately, that McFadden's contribution upon his return to Fir Park was restricted to 18 unproductive minutes was indicative of his career of late; a frustrating medley of cameos and casualties that moved even manager Stuart McCall to query the extent of his potential impact in the final months of the campaign.
McCall had spoken pre-match of the need to be loyal to those who had served him well and the importance of both McFadden and the fans remaining patient, and he was as good as his word. The Motherwell manager made his first change after 55 minutes. It wasn't Him. Around 10 minutes later, McCall called Him over and, finally, the No.20 sauntered on to the field with 18 minutes remaining. The Return of the King – as it was branded – could begin. His contribution, perhaps predictably given his recent inactivity, could not match the hype. Playing inside-left, McFadden almost picked out Michael Higdon with one adroit ball and scudded a prime free-kick into the wall. And that was it.
The shame was that McFadden's belated introduction effectively reduced the rest of this engaging contest to a preamble. Motherwell, undefeated at home in the Clydesdale Bank Premier League since losing to United in November, had the chance not only to strengthen their grip on second place but also effectively end their visitors' hopes of ending the term as the best of the rest by moving 10 points clear of Jackie McNamara's side. Instead, Russell's first-half effort cut the gap from seven points to four; the least United deserved for a hugely accomplished counter-attacking performance.
That such a yawning gap had opened between two similarly-appointed sides can be attributed, almost entirely, to United's defensive frailties. The Tannadice team have conceded 27 times in their last 10 league games to firmly establish theirs as the most feckless defence in the division, with the fearful hiding suffered at Celtic Park last Saturday chastening McNamara into adopting a more cautious approach last night.
The strategy was obvious. With Jon Daly accommodated at centre-back, United would invite Motherwell on to them then use the pace of Russell, Gary Mackay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong to break menacingly. At times it faltered, the creative trident lacking a focal point for much of their fine work, but when it did work it brought spectacular results.
There seemed scant threat when a Motherwell corner was cleared to Mackay-Steven on the apex on his own area in the 17th-minute but the winger cushioned cutely and streaked upfield, eluding the attentions of Kallum Higginbotham to slip a pass between the two centre-backs and into the path of Russell, who slid a finish past the advancing Darren Randolph.
"The way it was worked was brilliant and, when Johnny gets in that position you know the net is going to bulge," said McNamara.
It would not be the last time that Motherwell looked susceptible in such a way. Russell perhaps should have scampered in to score a few minutes earlier after Rankin bisected the defenders and the striker later lashed a vicious effort over after latching on to a hopeful scud upfield.
United had chances after the break, too, but were denied on four occasions by Randolph's excellence and twice by goalline clearances. First, the goalkeeper jabbed out a leg to block from Mackay-Steven, then stood tall to thwart the winger again moments later, before plunged to his left to deny John Rankin. The Irishman then followed it up by somehow getting a leg in the way of another Russell effort before spooking Mackay-Steven into slashing the rebound over. Randolph would later need the assistance of Tom Hateley on the line after Daly's header soared over him, then Shaun Hutchison after another Mackay-Steven juggle and jab.
For McCall, Randolph's efforts were a rare positive on a frustrating evening. Not for the first time this term, Motherwell's expansive approach was hampered by the tightness of the Fir Park pitch, a problem exacerbated by their visitors' compact shape. For all that they enjoyed plenty of the ball and in dangerous areas, the forest of bodies in and around the United box meant that clear opportunities were scant. A sharp combination between Nicky Law and Henrik Ojamaa worked their sole first half opening, but the Englishman's cross was diverted behind by Keith Watson. Their second-half play was more productive but still a goal eluded them as Ojamaa wafted aimlessly over; Hammell went close with a free-kick; Stuart Carswell's tame drive was saved; and Law struck the top of the bar. Even a penalty claim, when Higdon's volley struck Keith Watson, was fruitless.
"We weren't at us best," said McCall. "Because of that it would have been nice to bring James on in different circumstances but it's not all about him."
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