Motherwell slipped to a 3-1 defeat at Rugby Park despite taking the lead early on through John Sutton.
The Steelmen came flying out of the blocks and Englishman Sutton prodded home from close range following great wing play by Chris Humphrey.
The lead was short-lived, however, and the home side equalised when Manuel Pascali headed home following an Alexei Eremenko corner.
Killie took the lead shortly before the interval in controversial circumstances when Pascali was adjudged to have been pushed inside the area by Gavin Gunning. The referee pointed to the spot allowing Jamie Hamill to fire home.
Paatelainen’s side were by far the better side in the second half and confirmed their win when Liam Kelly headed home a Eremenko corner to all but guarantee Kilmarnock a top-six finish.
‘Well boss Stuart McCall made three changes to the side that drew with Dundee United last Sunday. Keith Lasley was suspended, Stevie Hammell injured himself in training on Friday and Jamie Murphy dropped to the bench. They were replaced by Jonathan Page, Steve Jennings and Chris Humphrey.
However, before kick-off, Jeffers tweaked a neck muscle in the warm-up and had to be replaced late on by Jamie Murphy.
Despite this blow, Motherwell came out the traps well and a shot from Steven Saunders flew wide and a Tom Hateley half-volley was blocked on route when it seemed destined to be at least troubling Killie’s Finnish goalkeeper Anssi Jaakkola.
The Steelmen were very much on the front foot but their fluency was interrupted by a freak injury to Scotland U21 star Steven Saunders. The young defender fell awkwardly with his foot planted and had to be stretchered off with what looks like a nasty ankle knock.
That forced Stuart McCall into a change with Ross Forbes coming on in the middle of the park with Tom Hateley having to fill-in at right full back.
Motherwell continued to have the better of the opening exchanges and Gavin Gunning posted a notice of intent after fourteen minutes when he met a Jennings lay-off but could only blast his shot from distance high over the bar.
It was a warning Killie would fail to heed as McCall’s men took a deserved lead just one minute later. Chris Humphrey was the architect, roasting Tim Clancy and leaving Eremenko for dead before clipping a low near post cross that allowed John Sutton to nip in ahead of Mohamadou Sissoko and prod past Jaakkola for his fourteenth goal of the campaign.
Motherwell continued to push and almost doubled their advantage five minutes later when, again, the dangerous Sutton almost got in amongst the goals. His lovely deft header from a Jennings cross hit the post before dropping wide for a goal kick.
It was to prove a crucial let-off for the home side who, within two minutes, levelled the game. Motherwell needlessly conceded a corner which they struggled to clear. The ball eventually landed back at the feet of the taker, Eremenko, who skipped past Jennings before hanging up a lovely cross towards the back post which was powered home by Manuel Pascali despite the best efforts of Darren Randolph.
The home support were out of their seats just after the half-hour when Liam Kelly blasted a long-range effort a few yards over Darren Randolph’s crossbar. A minute later, the same player delivered a terrific back-post cross that was met by Craig Bryson only for his shot to be blocked by the alert Stephen Craigan at the expense of another corner.
For all that goalmouth action, it looked as if the teams would go in level at the break – but a controversial penalty would give the home side the crucial lead at the interval. A somewhat innocuous looking ball into the box was challenged for by both Gunning and Pascali. It appeared no more than a usual coming together but Mike Tumilty spotted an infringement and pointed to the spot.
Jamie Hamill was in no mood for mercy and he slammed home the penalty kick in off the left hand post leaving Randolph with no chance. Gunning, for his part, was booked for protesting.
Kilmarnock were immediately in the ascendancy in the second half and should have extended their lead when Kelly, finding massive amounts of space inside the area, failed to round off an excellent Killie move when he fired wide of the post.
Eremenko had another shot from the edge of the area comfortably saved and Silva stung the palms of Randolph with a low, fizzing drive that forced the Motherwell keeper to expertly turn round the post. Killie did eventually grab the crucial third and McCall would be left to tear his hair out as Mixu Paatelainen’s men scored from the resulting corner.
Eremenko was the taker, whipping in a front post corner that allowed Kelly to peel of his marker and beat the outrushing Darren Randolph to the punch, heading the ball into an unguarded net.
McCall threw on Steve Jones in place of Jonathan Page but struggled for penetration despite working the ball towards the edge of the Kilmarnock area often enough.
One such break through did come on the 63rd minute when, after playing a neat one-two with John Sutton, Steve Jennings fired in a low shot that forced Jaakkola to smother. Shortly after, Murphy blazed over after neat passing build-up and a Gunning header was bundled off the line by Bryson. The small band of Motherwell fans behind the goal sensed that, perhaps, their team still had an avenue to get back in the game.
But, with each additional body that pushed forward, Killie would hit on the counter and, to be fair, the Rugby Park men could and should have extended their advantage in the last twenty minutes, but a combination of poor finishing and excellent goalkeeping kept the scoreline at 3-1.
Randolph blocked superbly from Hamill after the former Scotland U21 ace had broke the offside trap. He also stopped Kelly from adding to his tally and made an excellent save from Silva who fired a blistering shot from the edge of the area.
Motherwell huffed and puffed towards the end, even passing up an excellent three-versus-one counter-attack as the game drew to a close. Even on the stroke of full-time they couldn’t pull one back when a Tom Hateley free-kick was turned over by Jaakkola.
Despite the defeat, Motherwell remain in the top-six, one point ahead of Inverness Caley who failed to take advantage of the slip, losing 1-0 away at Tannadice. The fight for the last remaining top-six space goes on and looks lightly to go to the wire.
[tab:As it happened]
Alan Burrows at Rugby Park
90mins – Full time – Kilmarnock 3 – 1 Motherwell
87mins – Hateley free-kick from distance is tipped over by Jaakkola!
85mins – Motherwell break three on one but somehow manage to make it a mess of it and the chance is cleared.
83mins – Killie are battering the Motherwell goal. Only Darren Randolph’s brilliance has kept this respectable.
73mins – Great cross from the right by Hamill is met by Bryson inside the six-yard box but his header is saved by Randolph.
71mins – Killie break straight up the park and Hamill finds himself in acres of space but his low shot is well blocked by Randolph.
70mins – Motherwell almost pull one back. Corner from Forbes is met by Gunning. His header is somehow blocked on the line by Bryson.
65mins – Another good passing move from Motherwell. Murphy and Jennings combine but Murphy’s shot is well over.
63mins – Motherwell hit on the counter. Jennings plays a neat one-two with Sutton but his low shot is straight at Jaakkola.
61mins – Eremenko fires over after good work on the left flank by Silva. Killie are well on top here…
55mins – Steve Jones comes in for Page as the attendance is announced as 4259!
52mins – Corner from Eremenko finds Kelly at the front post and he nips in ahead of Randolph to head home.
52mins – GOAL Kilmarnock. Liam Kelly
51mins – David Silva tests the big Rep of Ireland International with a stinging low drive that is turned away for a corner.
49mins – Eremenko shot from the edge of the area is again comfortable for Randolph.
46mins – Kilmarnock kick off and almost start with a goal but Liam Kelly fires wide after a good move down the right.
Half Time – Kilmarnock 2 – 1 Motherwell. The Steelmen are very unlucky to go in behind. Soft penalty puts Killie ahead. Tumilty is booed off!
45mins – Hutchinson goes in the book. Joins Forbes, Jennings and Gunning.
44mins – GOAL Kilmarnock. Jamie Hamill slams home to make it 2-1. Looked very, very, very, very soft!
44mins – Penalty for Killie
34mins – Kelly cross to the back post finds Bryson but his shot is deflected wide off Craigan.
33mins – A long range shot from Liam Kelly has the Killie fans out their seats but no danger for Randolph as he watches it over.
24mins – Motherwell fail to deal with a corner and when Eremenko hangs up a cross Manuel Pascali heads home. Too easy for the home side.
23mins – GOAL Kilmarnock – Manuel Pascali
20mins – Offfft, Motherwell hit the post. Jennings cross is flicked on by Sutton but it hits the outside of the post.
19mins – Jennings booked!
17mins – Eremenko free-kick from the edge of the area drops comfortably in the arms of Darren Randolph.
15mins – That’s Sutton’s 40th goal for Motherwell on his 95th start in Claret and Amber. What a record that is!
15mins – Fantastic driving run from Humphrey. Takes out two before turning it across the face for Sutton to prod home.
15mins – GOOOOOAALLLLLLLLLLLL Motherwell!
14mins – Good half chance for ‘Well there. Jennings won the ball and teed up the on-rushing Gunning but his shot from distance blazes over!
9mins – Bit of a lull in the atmosphere after that injury to Saunders. With SS off & Jeffers forced off in the warm-up, it’s a patch up job.
8mins – The young defender is having to come off… On a stretcher. Ross Forbes is coming on with Hateley shifting to RB.
6mins – Both teams are guilty of giving away possession cheaply. Play is broke up after an injury to Steven Saunders. Looks bad….
4mins – Blasted shot by Hateley is blocked on route… That was going close I think!
2mins – Early free-kick for ‘Well is cleared by the Killie back line. The Steelmen remain on the front foot.
1mins – Motherwell to kick-off – Jennings and the late intro of Murphy to get us underway…
Motherwell manager Stuart McCall:
“I have talked about inconsistency since I came to the club and I think you saw that in two halves today.
“After an excellent goal we played well in the first half and we were quite comfortable. We know how Kilmarnock play; you can talk about many good players they have but we lost three goals from set pieces today and when you get beat with a simple corner it s not good enough, particularly with the height we have in our team
“I can make excuses for them (the set-pieces) as we lost Hammell at the last minute in training on Friday (hamstring), then Jeffers (neck) just before the game and then Saunders (ankle) early in the game.
“And, although I am not one for blaming officials, there were a lot of decisions that went against us and, once again, the penalty was incredibly soft.”
Kilmarnock manager Mixu Paatelainen:
“I enjoyed the second half and so did the fans, I hope. I’m delighted. Three points, that’s what we were after.
“We kept the ball under control, we passed it from man to man, we had good movement. And we defended well. They feel comfortable out there.
“If you have that security and peace of mind then you relax a bit and your passes are better weighted and your movement is a little bit sharper and earlier and that’s what happened in the second half.
“All in all, I don’t think we had a weak link out there on the pitch. Everybody played their part and did well.”