Inverness Caledonian Thistle revived their Scottish Premiership promotion ambitions after a stunning late Reece McAlear brace snatched an unlikely draw with St Johnstone.
The Perth side, who finished 11th in the top flight, were cruising after Shaun Rooney’s thumping header and Melker Hallberg’s scrambled effort.
They had further chances after the break, but were punished for their profligacy when McAlear first lashed in from the edge of the area, then fizzed in an outrageous free-kick to level.
It leaves the tie delicately-poised going into Monday’s second leg at McDiarmid Park, with last season’s double cup winners St Johnstone needing to avoid defeat if they are to avoid slipping into the Scottish Championship.
- Reaction & as it happened
Callum Davidson may well be wondering how this contest is still alive going into that match, given how dominant they were for a large chunk of this game.
Glenn Middleton set the tone, having a fierce early drive pushed over by Mark Ridgers, before Murray Davidson dragged an effort wide and Rooney tested the home keeper from distance.
That St Johnstone pressure would pay off, though, when Hallberg crossed from the left and Rooney leapt high above Cameron Harper to apply a meaty finish.
Still the Perth side came and still Inverness struggled. Callum Hendry’s shot was blocked by Ridgers and the ball was eventually touched in by Hallberg after Middleton had made himself a nuisance.
Inverness looked shell-shocked. They needed half-time and manager Billy Dodds acted when it arrived, sending on Logan Chalmers and Austin Samuels in place of Aaron Doran and Joe Hardy.
Initially, there was no let-up by St Johnstone, with Hendry drawing an awkward save from Ridgers and Dan Cleary nodding wide before Middleton curled an effort just past an upright.
However, Inverness had showcased their resilience in their penalty shoot-out play-off semi-final win over Arbroath, and they summoned that resolve again here.
McAlear gave them hope, finishing firmly after Samuels squared from the right, albeit St Johnstone felt aggrieved that play had not been stopped following a clash of heads, while Samuels may also have been offside when receiving the ball.
Regardless, Inverness responded better to the goal as they sensed the chance of an unlikely draw. And they earned just that when McAlear shaped a stunning free-kick high into Zander Clark’s top right-hand corner to leave the tie in the balance.
Man of the match – Glenn Middleton
What did we learn?
Shorn of the suspended Danny Devine and Wallace Duffy – both dismissed in last Friday’s semi-final – Inverness started with a back three to match up with St Johnstone but reverted to a four after falling two behind.
For three quarters of this game, they were second best but were galvanised by McAlear’s first goal and the side who finished third in the second tier ended the game on top.
St Johnstone looked as though they had reserved their best performance of the season for their most important game. Looking much more like the team that won last season’s cup double, Davidson’s side were firmly in the driving seat.
However, they now have plenty work to do to secure a 14th successive top-flight campaign, given the second leg has effectively become a cup final.
What did they say?
St Johnstone manager Callum Davidson: “It’s a poor refereeing decision for their first goal. It’s two yards offside and it was a head knock. Two really poor decisions let them back in the game. They got a little bit of momentum.
“For the first 60 minutes, we were outstanding. It’s probably a little bit disappointing we didn’t score more goals. It goes back to McDiarmid and it’s up to us to win the game.
“We need to go and perform like that on Monday. If we do, we’ll be confident we can win the game. It’s one game so let’s go.”
The sides meet again in Monday’s second leg at McDiarmid Park (19:45 BST).
- Match Stats
- Live Text
- 28HydeSubstituted forAllardiceat 56′minutes
- 10DoranSubstituted forChalmersat 45′minutes
- 20HardySubstituted forSamuelsat 45′minutes
- 29HallbergSubstituted forButterfieldat 69′minutes
- 14MiddletonBooked at 52minsSubstituted forMayat 69′minutes
- Bobby Madden
- Shots on Target
Match ends, Inverness CT 2, St. Johnstone 2.
Second Half ends, Inverness CT 2, St. Johnstone 2.
Foul by Billy Mckay (Inverness CT).
Murray Davidson (St. Johnstone) wins a free kick in the attacking half.
Foul by Logan Chalmers (Inverness CT).
Shaun Rooney (St. Johnstone) wins a free kick on the right wing.
Offside, Inverness CT. Reece McAlear tries a through ball, but Kirk Broadfoot is caught offside.
Corner, Inverness CT. Conceded by Liam Gordon.
Attempt blocked. Billy Mckay (Inverness CT) right footed shot from the right side of the six yard box is blocked. Assisted by Austin Samuels.
Foul by Robbie Deas (Inverness CT).
Stevie May (St. Johnstone) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Goal! Inverness CT 2, St. Johnstone 2. Reece McAlear (Inverness CT) from a free kick with a right footed shot to the top left corner.
Reece McAlear (Inverness CT) wins a free kick in the attacking half.
Foul by Murray Davidson (St. Johnstone).
Corner, Inverness CT. Conceded by Jamie McCart.
Corner, St. Johnstone. Conceded by Cameron Harper.
Goal! Inverness CT 1, St. Johnstone 2. Reece McAlear (Inverness CT) left footed shot from the centre of the box to the high centre of the goal. Assisted by Austin Samuels.
Substitution, St. Johnstone. Jacob Butterfield replaces Melker Hallberg.
Substitution, St. Johnstone. Stevie May replaces Glenn Middleton.
Attempt missed. James Brown (St. Johnstone) right footed shot from long range on the left is high and wide to the right. Assisted by Melker Hallberg.