Dundee United 2 Falkirk 2 : Play-off poised after enjoyable start

Craigen turned in McKee's cross. Picture Michael Gillen.
Craigen turned in McKee's cross. Picture Michael Gillen.

A goal in each half sends Falkirk back full of hope ahead of Friday night’s play-off semi-final decider.

An engrossing evening on Tayside gives much hope for the Bairns ahead of the second leg – in progression and entertainment stakes.

Craigen cancelled out Simon Murray's opener. Picture Michael Gillen.

Craigen cancelled out Simon Murray's opener. Picture Michael Gillen.

The Bairns weren’t brilliant in this play-off semi-final, but they weren’t far off it. They were bright and lively and certainly the better side of the two contesting a slippery surface at Tannadice.

Yet United twice took the lead, but just as many times the Bairns pulled them back.

Simon Murray opened the scoring in United’s only dominant period in the game, but James Craigen levelled scores before half-time. A rare attack from the home side in the second half saw Blair Spittal beat Robbie Thomson but a crafty free-kick from Joe McKee caught everyone out and sends the teams back to Falkirk with the tie far from over.

As an appetiser, there is plenty in store.

James Craigen celebrates his equaliser. Picture Michael Gillen

James Craigen celebrates his equaliser. Picture Michael Gillen

In build-up, Peter Houston had discussed his previous play-off experience, when heading to Kilmrnock on the back of a 1-0 home win and maintained the same winning team. In retrospect he would have changed it back then, with his team tiring.

But after a week’s rest, he once again maintained his selection for his side’s first play-off experience of 2016-17, naming the same team as who ground out the win at Dumbarton to seal second place and their semi-final spot.

That meant Joe McKee and Mark Kerr in the middle, flanked by Craig Sibbald and James Craigen, ahead of the first choice defensive set-up and behind Nathan Austin and Lee Miller.

Miller always draws a strong reception from the Tangerines support after a previous spell at Tannadice. They have a new hero now, a combative tall strong frontman, and it was he, Simon Murray, who gave the Arabs the lead.

That came after an early spell from Falkirk which promised much.

Nathan Austin looekd to have benefitted greatly from the week’s rest and was pulled up for an aerial challenge with Cammy Bell. He then ended ex-Bairn Stewart Murdoch’s evening after just eight minutes, slide tackling the centre-half in an enthusiastic opening.

Murdoch gave Falkirk their last victory here at Tannadice, a penalty win in the League Cup of 2011-12, but he was replaced early by Sean Dillon.

From that early blow, United improved. Robbie Thomson saw a Murray blast fizz past the post and held another two efforts from Murray and Tony Andreu before Uhe was beaten by a good finish from the former Arbroath stirker.

A punt up the park from Cammy Bell was flicked on by Thomas Mikkelsen. Luca Gasparotto couldn’t do much other than touch the ball and it was laid into Murray’s path and the striker blasted the home side ahead.

That was it though in terms of United’s purple patch. Once Falkirk regathered their thoughts and confidence there was only one team involved in the attacksm in the first half.

They earned a terrific equalisder from James Craigen when the midfielder hooked a shot acrobatically over his shoulder and into the net after Craig Sibbald had won the ball against the might of Wato Kuate. Sibbald fed a neat through ball for Nathan Austin and his widening of the play to Joe McKee saw a cross swept in and Craigen’s emphatic finish.

Itb was United’s tuirn to be rocked and while the Bairns recovered and retaliated, United’s confidence crumbled and they looked panicked by the time Bobby Madden drew the half to a close.

Lee Miller went close with a near-post header, and James Craigen had another low drive pushed out by the goalkeeper.

The Tannadice pitch grass looked long and slippery having been watered just ten minutes ahead of kick-off. Once it dried out the game improved greatly in the second half and within 15 minutes of the restart the sides had exchanged goals again.

Simon Murray was closed out by the Falkirk defence, rightly identified as the United dangerman, but as they suffocated his space on the edge of the box in the 52nd minute they hadn’t counted on Blair Spittal unleashing a low 20yard drive past Thomson to restore the home side’s lead.

Again though, it lasted little.

Wato Kuate gave Nathan Austin two shots at recovering possession in midfield and the Bairns striker strode forwards. It wook Willo Flood’s foul from behind on the ex-East Fife man to halt him in his tracks 25 yards out.

With most in Tannadice expecting a cross from Joe McKee, supplier of the Bairns first equaliser, the ex-Carlisle man swept in a shot direct from the set-piece, catching Bell out and levelling.

It was no less than Falkirk deserved, though Peter Houston moved to protect the draw following the goal by switching to 5-3-2 with McKee at right wing-back and Muirhead tucking in alongside Gasparotto and Peter Grant, then replacing Sibbald with Tom Taiwo.

John Baird looked to have sent the Bairns ahead at last, but his leap and great looping header into the top corner from Craigen’s cross was ruled out for offside.

Robbie Thomson made a great save in the last minute of regulation time which takes the tie back to Westfield, poised on 2-2, but at a venue where the Bairns have scored six against United, and only conceded once.