MacDonald header sinks Livi
Published: 21 Jan 2013 11:300 comments
AT full-time on Saturday, Morton had moved five points clear at the top of First Division table - but only after an incredibly hard-won 2-1 triumph over a talented Livingston side.
With Dunfermline's match at Cowdenbeath postponed due to a frozen pitch, the Cappielow club had the ideal opportunity to move further ahead of their title rivals.
They took it, and now sit five clear of Partick Thistle and six ahead of the Pars, but the Ton weren't at their best, especially in the 38 minutes between taking the lead and Iain Russell's equaliser.
Despite that, they still emerged with maximum points, and these are the sorts of results - winning while not playing at your best - that mark out potential champions.
Most bookmakers still have the Jags, who thrashed Falkirk 4-1 at Firhill, as even-money title favourites, though, with Allan Moore's men second in the running at 2/1.
Partick still have games in hand. But as the old adage goes, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. There are no guarantees that the Glasgow side will win those matches.
They have Cowdenbeath at Central Park - no 'gimme' as Ton proved recently - and Hamilton, who have already beaten them twice this season.
Morton, meanwhile, are fully up-to-date with their fixtures, thanks in no small part to the sterling work of award winning groundsman Mark Farrell.
Despite Tuesday's reserve match against Stenhousemuir falling foul of a frozen Cappielow pitch, the recently thawed playing surface was in excellent condition for Livi's visit. It made for an exciting afternoon of football which began at a frantic pace with the action ebbing and flowing from end to end in the early stages.
As well as working to stifle Livi - pushing David Graham up to prevent short goal-kicks while Martin Hardie let Stefan Scougall know he was around - Ton also threatened at the other end.
In Friday's Tele, Moore identified his side's threat from set-pieces as an area which could prove important on the day with the West Lothian outfit fielding just two players over six foot tall.
Ton, meanwhile, had six, and one of that half-dozen, 6ft 1in Kevin Rutkiewicz, was causing all sort of problems at corners.
He first threatened on six minutes, stealing a march on his marker to glance Michael Tidser's inswinging flag kick from the right across goal and narrowly wide of the left-hand post.
On 15 minutes, his aerial dominance was a key component in the opening goal as he headed David Graham's clipped corner from the opposite side back into the danger area.
Craig Reid, playing at left-back with Willie Dyer suspended, swept the knock-down towards goal, and although Livi keeper Andy McNeil plunged to save, Hardie followed up to slam home the rebound.
Remarkably - all the more so when it is considered that he is a 36-year-old deployed, albeit ostensibly, as a deep-lying midfielder - the goal was his eighth in 11 starts.
After taking the lead, the hosts seemed to instinctively gravitate towards their own goal, allowing Livingston the lion's share of possession.
However, for all their slick passing football orchestrated by classy playmaker Scougall, they were not exactly cutting through a resolute Morton.
On the occasions Gareth Evans' side did manage to find a route to goal, they found Derek Gaston an insurmountable barrier.
On 20 minutes, Marc McNulty was slipped in down the inside-left channel by French midfielder Anthony Andreu.
But the Ton keeper narrowed the angle and produced an impressive save by making himself as big as possible and blocking with a puffed out chest.
He made a routine save shortly afterwards, catching a looping Scougall header after former Ton man Russell had picked him out with a cross from the left.
The pressure was relentless at this stage and Livingston created a third opening less than 60 seconds later.
Former St Mirren man Burton O'Brien was the architect, picking out McNulty, who'd pulled away into space on the right, with a pin-point 40-yard diagonal pass. McNulty drifted inside and teed up former Monaco man Andreu, who cracked a first-time effort towards goal from 25 yards, but Gaston was alert and threw up a hand to push the ball over.
He was called on again for the fourth time in seven minutes when he flew to his left to push out Russell's powerful left-footed drive.
O'Brien was fairly settled just in front of the visitors' defence, but beyond that there was a great deal of fluidity about their midfield as the other four interchanged freely.
They had no settled position; a freedom to float around the pitch to their hearts' content, and this was causing Morton problems as well as forcing them to work incredibly hard to compete.
An example of this came just before the half hour when Liam Fox, who often sat beside O'Brien when Livi were not in possession, burst forward on to Kevin McCann's clipped pass.
His charge seemed to catch Ton by surprise and saw Fouad Bachirou clip his heels and receive a booking for the foul. Ton created their first real opening in a while on 39 minutes. Michael Tidser did well to read and intercept a pass midway inside the opposition half, took a touch and then slipped Peter MacDonald in down the right.
The frontman glanced back over his right shoulder, let the ball run past him on his outside and then wrapped his foot around the ball at the perfect moment.
He got plenty of power behind his angled strike but just a little too much height and the ball flashed narrowly over the top.
Livingston responded by creating their best opportunity thus far when the influential Scougall dissected the Ton defence with a deft side-rule pass. Scott Taggart, starting at right-back with Reid moved to cover for Dyer, tried and failed to cut it out with an outstretched leg and the ball ran on for McNulty to collect deep inside the box. He should have scored but slipped his finish across the face of goal and a whisker wide of the upright.
It was a huge let-off for Ton who subsequently went in at the break a goal to the good rather on level terms, which, on the balance of play, would have been a fairer reflection of proceedings.
Ton's widemen were quiet in the first period as they have been in recent matches, but Graham gave a glimpse of his pre-festive season form five minutes into the second half.
Picking up the ball in his own half, he ran the gauntlet leaving opponents trailing in his wake as he charged right through the heart of Livingston's midfield. As soon as he broke into space he quickly fed the ball to MacDonald, who'd pulled away to the left, and the striker, in turn, pushed the ball inside to Tidser.
The midfielder, especially keen to score to mark the week of his 23rd birthday, let fly with a shot which looked destined for the back of the net until Jesus Garcia Tena popped up with a crucial block.
MacDonald then ignored options arriving in the middle after collecting a Gaston punt out on the right towards the Cowshed and fired an angled drive wide.
Two chances in quick succession seemed to signal a change in momentum, but before Ton could build on those opportunities, Livingston levelled on 53 minutes.
Inevitably it was former Ton striker Russell who scored it, cutting in off the right flank and going for goal with a hopeful effort from 22 yards. He swung his left foot at the ball, failing to get much power on his drive, but it still managed to creep past Gaston's despairing dive.
The Ton No1 was slow to get down and should have saved - something skipper Mark McLaughlin made clear as the ball was returned to the centre circle.
It was Russell's seventh goal in six appearances against Ton for Livi, and his 16th in 19 games over the course of his career - the same number he scored for the Cappielow club in three years there.
The leveller forced a positive reaction from Moore's men, and they instantly became a more assertive, attacking force.
Only a fine flying save from McNeil prevented McLaughlin from restoring Ton's lead after the centre-back met a Tidser corner with a powerful header.
But their potent set-piece threat would pay dividends on 68 minutes as MacDonald peeled off at the back post to bullet home a teasing Tidser free-kick from wide on the left.
It was a surprise that the scorer was not one of the usual suspects, but the quality of the leap and header suggest MacDonald will add another dimension to their set-play arsenal.
Livingston pushed for an equaliser afterwards, looking to make it a third 2-2 draw between the sides this season.
Craig Barr sent a header wide after connecting with a Jordan Morton corner while Andreu caused panic in the home ranks when he flashed a volley across the face of goal after a few fancy keepy-ups.
But Ton dug deep, and strong defending and tigerish midfield resistance from the likes of McLaughlin, Rutkiewicz, Reid, Hardie and Bachirou saw them hold out to push further clear at the top.