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Motherwell 2 Inverness CT 0: Hughes' men continue to fire blanks

INVERNESS Caledonian Thistle had hoped this would be the perfect way to shake off their cup hangover.

Motherwell's  Stuart Carswell shields the ball from Graeme Shinnie. Picture: SNS
Motherwell's Stuart Carswell shields the ball from Graeme Shinnie. Picture: SNS

Instead it just made it worse. If losing the League Cup final to Aberdeen on penalties three days earlier had left John Hughes and his players somewhat worse for wear, then this league defeat to Motherwell must have felt like a cruel extension of their suffering. When all they wanted was the football equivalent of a can of Irn Bru and some salt and vinegar crisps, what they got instead was another dose of the shakes, a sweaty forehead and a pounding headache that refused to go away.

Inverness have garnered great plaudits for reaching the first major final in their 20-year history but, coincidentally or otherwise, their league form either side of that showpiece has been wretched. This was a fifth successive match, including the final, in which they have failed to score, a period that has seen them gradually slide out of the reckoning for European football next season.

A victory here would not only have exorcised their cup final demons but also given them a more than decent chance of challenging for third place in the SPFL Premiership table. Now, nine points adrift of last night's opponents, it seems playing for pride - and possibly fourth if they can overtake Dundee United - will be their most likely objective over the remainder of the campaign, although Hughes, with typical defiance, was not for throwing in the towel just yet. "There are 10 games remaining and the challenge is to get into Europe," said Hughes. "Simple as that. But to do it we have to get back to winning matches."

They could consider them unlucky to have left Fir Park emptyhanded. They started the game well and were largely dominant in the second half, but were unable to capitalise on that superiority by finding a way past Gunnar Nielsen, restored to the Motherwell goal for the first time in a month following an injury to Lee Hollis.

One incident early in the second half summed up their misfortune. Ross Draper worked the ball to James Vincent who had a shot saved by Nielsen. The rebound fell to the onrushing Greg Tansey whose effort was also hacked off the line by defender Craig Reid. It had seemed a near-certainty that one of them would score.

The hardy bunch of fans - all 53 of them - who had travelled back down from the Highlands so soon after their visit to Celtic Park surely deserved more. "I felt we were the better team from start to finish," added Hughes. "On another night we could have scored a few goals. If we had got the goal [early] in the second half when James Vincent mishit it and the goalie saved it, it might have been a whole different game."

The spoils, instead, went to Motherwell, the ideal way to mark manager Stuart McCall's 150th game in charge. McCall could be excused for thinking that he has been somewhat overlooked amid the rush to heap praise on Derek McInnes for leading Aberdeen to their first cup success in 19 years. On a smaller budget McCall has taken Motherwell to a cup final - the 2011 Scottish Cup - and has already ensured his side will be competing in the top six after the split for a fifth successive season.

Victory here drew them level on points with Aberdeen but just behind them in the table as a result of their inferior goal difference.

It is perhaps a backwards compliment that regular forays into European football and high-placed league finishes are now simply expected of Motherwell under McCall, barely causing a ripple when they achieve them.

Two goals in the first half proved to be the difference on the night. Steven Hammell was the supplier of both, the full-back's crossfield pass after 25 minutes sending Lionel Ainsworth running clear of a static defence to apply the neat finish.

The second goal, after 34 minutes, settled any lingering nerves among the home support and effectively ended the match as a contest. Hammell crossed again from the left, the ball skidding through the six-yard box to the back post where John Sutton stooped to head in his 18th goal of a stellar personal season.

It would prove sufficient on a night when Motherwell weren't at their best but still managed to come out on top. "A win's a win," said McCall. "We didn't play particularly well, particularly in the second half, but we got two really good goals."

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