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St Mirren 2 St Johnstone 0: Portuguese pest is Paisley's best

INTO the final of one cup, back within four points of the top six and now into the quarter-finals of another cup contest: it's remarkable how the entire narrative of St Mirren's season has been altered within six days.

This time last week, those of a Paisley persuasion were riven with trepidation as they prepared for a Scottish Communities League Cup semi-final few expected to escape from with pride intact, never mind a win.

Browbeaten by their uninspiring league form and with another SPL side awaiting in the Scottish Cup, the mood was bleak as another campaign appeared destined to fizzle out into insignificance. Then Esmael Goncalves arrived.

Coincidentally or otherwise, the arrival of the Rio Ave loan-signing has been marked with sudden spurt of form, the 21-year-old scoring in wins over Celtic and Inverness Caledonian Thistle. He took his tally to four in three appearances with two splendidly taken efforts against St Johnstone yesterday.

He could, and probably should, have scored another couple, too, the Portuguese proving a persistent pest to the Perth players with his leggily elusive bursts and fine finishing.

Strong, technically able and deceptively quick, the 21-year-old gave notice of his threat by creating early openings for Conor Newton and Steven Thompson but the former shot at Alan Mannus and the latter could only prod wide. Other St Mirren players were equally errant: Gary Teale scudded over and later fizzed a drive wide, and Graham Carey's dipping free-kick was gathered.

Taking matters in to his own hands proved much more fruitful for the Portuguese, though. He felt he should have had a first-half penalty when he was forced off the ball after streaking away from Tam Scobbie and Frazer Wright, but exacted his revenge three minutes after the break. Teale's teasing cross invited a header and Goncalves obliged, planting past Mannus.

Goncalves suddenly threatened to wreak havoc. In three minutes just before the hour, the forward could have doubled his tally but could only direct Graham Carey's diagonal ball at Mannus, then angled wide after beating Dave Mackay and Wright on another breenge in to the area.

Between those two chances, though, he did double St Mirren's advantage, welcoming the ball in to his feet 14 yards from goal, spinning two defenders and rolling a finish across the 'keeper and in to the bottom corner.

"He gets bums off seats," said Danny Lennon, the manager opting not to scold his striker for spurning a late chance. "He's only going to get better, too. We feel he's maybe still a wee bit overweight but he's going to get fitter and stronger and have a hell of a career."

Regardless of his conditioning, Goncalves had the ruthlessness and spark St Johnstone lacked. Although Steve Lomas chose a team with three strikers in Rowan Vine, Steven MacLean and Gregory Tade, the Perth side were unable to breach a previously porous St Mirren defence on a hugely frustrating afternoon. Craig Samson thwarted MacLean from close range, then did even better to deny Vine, hurling himself left to claw clear a powerful header. The goalkeeper should have been left with little chance when Tade played in MacLean, but the striker slashed horribly over from 10 yards.

Such profligacy proved infectious. Tade sclaffed well wide and MacLean was less than convincing with a header, before Samson was summoned to push a Vine drive past and block Nigel Hasselbaink's effort. "We thought we'd cured our Achilles' heel but the chances we missed . . . that was the difference," said Lomas.

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