Motherwell edged out top-six rivals St Johnstone 2-1 in a tense afternoon at Fir Park.
Lionel Ainsworth gave Motherwell the lead early on before Dave Mackay headed Saints level midway through the first half.
Stephen McManus got the decisive goal in controversial circumstances before half-time, his headed effort adjudged to have crossed the line before being punched clear by defender Steven Anderson.
The win sees Motherwell tighten their grip on a European spot, sitting third place in the standings with just two games to play and also takes them to within a point of second-placed Aberdeen.
Motherwell started the match brightly as the aerial prowess of John Sutton caused problems, and they passed up a couple of decent early openings before James McFadden was presented with a great chance to put the Steelmen ahead after nine minutes.
Great work by Zaine Francis-Angol down the left saw the ball forced back to McFadden on the edge of the area, but with time and space his side-footed effort was tame allowing Alan Mannus to gather.
St Johnstone had a good opportunity minutes later as they won the ball in midfield and released Stevie May on the right wing. The in-form striker ran at the Motherwell defence who backed off allowing him to get a shot away, but his effort was skewed well wide.
Ainsworth then had an effort for the home side, cutting in from the right before unleashing a strike that Mannus could only parry, and with the ball bouncing loose in the six-yard area Mackay reacted quickest to get the ball to safety.
Ainsworth did have the beating of Mannus to open the scoring in the 21st minute, although there may have been a touch of fortune about the winger’s looped finish.
Sutton laid the ball back to McFadden on the edge of the box, and his quick feet allowed the forward to skip over a challenge before laying the ball wide to Ainsworth. It looked as though the winger attempted to hang a cross up towards the far post, but it looped over Mannus into the net to give the Englishman his 11th goal of the season.
The lead lasted just five minutes, the visitors getting back on level terms in the simplest fashion.
An inswinging corner from the right by David Wotherspoon was met by the head of Mackay, who nodded home his third goal of the season unchallenged from the middle of the box.
There was a moment of controversy as the Steelmen moved ahead again on 35 minutes. Iain Vigurs’ free-kick to the far post found McManus unmarked and his headed effort bounced over Mannus before appearing to be punched off the line by Anderson.
With the whole stadium waiting for referee Kevin Clancy to point to the spot and send the defender off, assistant referee Andrew McWilliam signalled that the ball had crossed the line before Anderson made contact and the goal was awarded.
St Johnstone were the brighter side at the start of the second half and had Motherwell pinned back without creating any clear-cut chances, and their frustration was evident as May attempted to win a penalty by going over Keith Lasley’s planted left leg only to be shown a yellow card for simulation. It was hard to tell if ‘Well got a break or not, television pictures will prove one way or another.
The visitors did carve out a decent opportunity after 70 minutes, Wotherspoon dancing his way along the Motherwell 18-yard line before firing a low left-foot effort wide of Lee Hollis’s left-hand post.
Motherwell were looking content to sit on their lead and attempt to hit St Johnstone on the break, and the visitors were offering little in the way of a serious threat to the home goal in a largely uneventful second half.
Saints almost hit the equaliser they may have felt they deserved with four minutes remaining, Hollis’s punch clear being met on the half-volley on the edge of the area by Gary Miller, but the goalkeeper recovered to make a great stop low to his left to ensure the points stayed in Lanarkshire.
[tab:As it happened]
Alastair Reilly at Fir Park
FT: Motherwell 2 – 1 St Johnstone
3 minutes added on
88mins: Quality stuff from Hollis to punch clear then get down superbly to gather Miller’s shot!
85mins: Last St johnstone sub, Dunne off for McDonald
83mins: Anier wins ‘Well a corner,….doesn’t quite fall for Kerr allowing McKay to sweep it clear
80mins: St J sub, Hasselbaink on for Wotherspoon
76mins: Decent deep ball into the box but Kerr does enough to put May off and he heads well wide
74mins: Motherwell sub, Francis-Angol off for Kerr
69mins: And a ‘Well sub, McFadden makes way for Anier
68mins: St J sub, Croft on for O’Halloran
7,201 here at Fir Park Thanks to all as always!
59mins: May booked for taking a dive in the box. Did look theatrical.
49mins: A let off as May skips past Hollis but the linesman’s flag is up to deny him as he has strayed offside
Second half now underway #MFcvSJFC
Having seen the McManus goal back, delay in giving it looked like he was trying to decide if it was a pen and red card for Anderson or a goal as it was over the line. It was well over so correct decision in the end.
HT: Motherwell 2 – 1 St Johnstone #MFCvSJFC
42mins: Easton booked for a bad tackle on Sutton. Big man is getting some treatment…
39mins Tidy bit of footwork from McFadden in the box to set up Lasley but his shot his well closed down and blocked
It’s 2-1 now anyway!
35mins: A real strange moment as McManus heads the ball goalwards, and its headed away. Looked to be over the, ref says no, then says yes!
29mins: ‘Well looking to respond through Hutchinson but his header from Ainsworth’s corner is well over
26mins: A corner to Saints now, GOAL! McKay heads the delivery into the net 1-1
24mins: Corner to ‘Well, won by Francis-Angol….headed well clear by Miller
21mins: AINSWORTH makes it 1-0!! It’s maybe a cross but it’s looped over Mannus and into the bottom corner!!
17mins: Another superb chance for ‘Well! Ainsworth brings its down on thwe edge of the box and stings the palms of Mannus.Rebound is cleared
11mins: Counter attack from St J but from a narrow angle, May drags his shot well wide of the far post
8mins: Great chance for Faddy as he’s set up nicely 10 yards out. Tries to find a corner but fires straight at Mannus
3mins: Decent start for ‘Well. Some good pressure and Las has blasted on over from range. Bit of internet troubles today….
Underway here at Fir Park!! #MFCvSJFC
Motherwell manager Stuart McCall:
“My first reaction was penalty kick, he’s off and they’re down to 10 men, which you get quite excited about!” said McCall.
“I got even more excited when I saw the linesman sprinting towards the halfway line, so I knew he had given a goal, or I thought he had given a goal, and obviously there was a bit afterwards where Anderson got booked and I wasn’t really sure what happened.
“It was a bit puzzling on the sidelines why the delay took place. I would have been more happy if they had just came back and took the kick-off.
“I asked the fourth (official) about five minutes later what had happened and he said ‘well the goal was given!’ I said ‘well, yeah, I know the goal was given!’
“At first I thought that it was a penalty kick and Sutty (John Sutton) has been practising his penalties all week so I was quite confident, and you think ‘here we go, 10 men’, and especially that it was Anderson because I think he’s been a rock for them of late, but we’re obviously happy that was the winning goal.”
St Johnstone assistant manager Tommy Wright:
“The controversy is that there’s a foul on Dave MacKay in the build-up to it,” said Wright.
“I think there’s confusion with what happens after that, but I think it should have been a foul on Dave MacKay.
“He goes to ground, and I thought actually that was what the referee was pointing to. Then I thought it was a penalty kick, and if it was going to be a penalty kick it was going to be a sending-off and I think that’s maybe what he did, he thought it would be a penalty kick and his assistant’s told him it was over the line.
“So he’s right then to award the goal, but we’re disappointed that there was a foul on Dave MacKay we thought, he doesn’t just go to ground for no reason, and obviously (McManus) is his man and he’s been blocked.
“We didn’t do enough in the first half though, so they probably deserved to be ahead at that time.”