It was too little, too late for Caley Thistle, as they were unable to claw back the deficit against already relegated Dundee United.
United’s 2-1 defeat against city rivals Dundee on Monday consigned them to Championship football next season, but they looked to be on easy street following Simon Murray’s first-half double and former Inverness attacker Edward Ofere’s early second-half strike.
A stunning strike from Jordan Roberts and a close-range finish by Liam Polworth put Inverness right back into the game, but despite Callum Morris’ late red card for the visitors, Inverness were unable to force their way back into the game, with the result a blow to their hopes of finishing seventh.
Inverness have responded well since missing out on a fourth consecutive top-six place, and approached last night’s game having won three of their last four matches.
It came as no surprise that John Hughes elected to go with the same line-up- that delivered one of the Highlanders’ best displays of the campaign in the emphatic 4-1 defeat of Partick Thistle.
Among the top performers were attacking midfield pair Andrea Mbuyi-Mutombo and Jordan Roberts, both attempting to prove they are worthy of the club triggering the option of a 12-month contract extension, and the pair were once again looking to impress.
United’s forward line contained two familiar faces, with Billy Mckay and Edward Ofere both up against their former club, and the latter was quick to threaten in an early attack by United, with the Nigerian attacker forcing goalkeeper Owain Fon Williams into a smart low save little more than 30 seconds into the match.
It was an early sign the visitors were not for downing tools following their relegation, and they followed up with a fantastic goal that defied their lowly position on six minutes. Mckay managed to get the break of the ball off Polworth, before playing it through to Murray, who arrowed a fantastic 30-yard strike into the helpless Fon Williams’ right-hand corner.
The Tangerines’ inability to hold on to leading positions has proven costly over the campaign, but it was up to Inverness to show more attacking intent, having offered little in the opening stages. Their first opportunity of note arrived on 27 minutes, when a delightful threaded pass by Mbuyi-Mutombo picked out the run of Miles Storey, with the Englishman twice thwarted by a fine double save from United goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima.
There was little to enthuse either set of supporters in the remaining first-half minutes, with Inverness perhaps marginally enjoying the better of the play, but they were hit once again on the stroke of half-time. Just moments after Storey was once again denied by Kawashima, having attempted to lob the Japanese custodian with a deft 25-yard effort, United broke, with Fon Williams palming away Mckay’s effort, however the ball fell for Murray who managed to steady himself before bundling the ball home at the second attempt.
The goal put Inverness firmly on the backfoot, and in need of an early second-half boost, but their performance continued to look flat, and they were duly punished by United’s third goal on 55 minutes.
The two former Caley Jags combined, with Mckay released down the left flank before squaring for Ofere, and having opened his account for the club against Dundee on Monday, he was once again on hand to apply the damage from close-range.
Such enjoyable outings have been few and far between for the Tangerines this season, but Inverness immediately scaled down the level of embarrassment by pulling back a sublime goal within a minute, when Roberts let fly with a thumping low strike from 30 yards that flew past Kawashima..
The goal gave Caley Jags the encouragement to try their luck from long-range, and Liam Polworth came close with a rasping effort moments later.
But the midfielder was not to be denied on 69 minutes, when he was on hand to stab home from close-range after Kawashima had palmed Roberts’ strike away.
The goal gave the hosts hope of staging a comeback, and their cause was helped when United defender Morris was shown two yellow cards in the space of two minutes, with a foul on Roberts prompting referee Don Robertson to show a red card.
The defensive frailties that have plagued United all season were there to see, From the resulting free-kick, Roberts saw his header thwarted by a fine save by Kawashima, but there was to be no late twist as United held on.