Livingston maintained their position on the fringe of the Scottish First Division promotion race today with a 2-1 win over Raith Rovers at the Almondvale Stadium, with goals in either half.
Iain Russell’s first half strike was cancelled out by Brian Graham’s goal only moments later, but the Lions snatched what would eventually be the winner shortly after the break.
Both Gareth Evans and Grant Murray named unchanged sides for this clash after solid performances last weekend which saw Livingston earn a respectable draw against promotion-chasing Partick Thistle while Rovers ran out 2-0 winners against Airdrie United.
Livingston were without some key players as Ross Docherty, Jason Talbot and Keegan Jacobs all missed out; Jacobs this week sustained Anterior Cruciate Ligament damage – the same injury which is set to keep Talbot sidelined for at least another month.
Both teams settled into the game well, with Raith perhaps having slightly more of the ball in the opening stages as the two sets of players endeavoured to keep it on the deck with slick passing. However it was Livingston who produced the first real opportunity of the game, when Stefan Scougall’s shot from the edge of the box grazed David McGurn’s right-hand post after ten minutes played.
Raith responded soon after, when Pat Clarke made his way in off the right hand side and entered the Livingston penalty area. His shot took a deflection from Jesus Garcia Tena, causing the ball to loop up unpredictably, but the Lions’ keeper Andrew McNeil was alert enough to tip the ball over the bar.
Livingston looked to take the lead when in the 24th minute, Iain Russell crossed from the right flank to find Marc McNulty on the six-yard line, who swiveled to strike the ball first time, only to see his effort flash just wide of Raith goalkeeper David McGurn’s left-hand post.
Livingston by now seemed to be asserting themselves in midfield as Stefan Scougall tried to orchestrate the attacking moves from the centre of the pitch.
The home side again had the next opportunities of note, as Liam Fox found himself just inside Rovers’ penalty box and struck the ball first time, with McGurn able to parry. Seconds later, a breakdown in play gifted the ball back to Fox, this time from just outside the area, but he was unable to hit the target as his shot zipped wide.
Raith then earned a free-kick on the edge of the Livi area, but Brian Graham’s strike was matched by a smart save by McNeil as he got down to his right.
It was at this point that Livingston opened the scoring, after Jesus Garcia Tena’s long ball released Marc McNulty on the right hand side, who sprung clear of the Raith defence and may have considered having a go himself, but squared the ball for an onrushing Iain Russell to fire home from close range, despite Dougie Hill’s attempts to keep the ball from crossing the line.
Rovers responded well, and within five minutes Brian Graham was there to meet an outswinging corner. His first headed attempt was saved brilliantly by McNeil, but the ‘keeper was unable to stop Graham stabbing the rebound home from point-blank range and leveling the scoreline.
Indeed, the Raith striker seemed to have found his stride and with around five minutes left to play in the first half, he picked the ball up from thirty-five yards out, turned and struck it sweetly. It was a shot deserving of a goal, but he and Andrew McNeil could only watch as the ball cannoned off of the Livingston crossbar and went out of play.
A relentless first half was enjoyed by the 1,424 fans inside the Almondvale Stadium, and there was still some action left to come in the second.
With two minutes of the second half gone, Livingston earned another corner but the delivery was seemingly picked off by the Raith rearguard, only for the Lions’ central defender Garcia Tena to win the ball back deep in Rovers’ territory. That was not the end of his good work; the Spaniard performed a sublime “Cruyff” turn and bamboozled the Raith defence with several step-overs, before cutting it back for Craig Barr to slot the ball home underneath the body of McGurn.
The Fifers then saw two of their players booked within a matter of minutes as Dougie Hill and Stuart Anderson saw yellow for late lunges in innocuous areas of the pitch, perhaps out of frustration at the avoidable manner in which they had conceded Livingston’s second of the day.
A wave of substitutions then followed just before the 70th minute-mark as Iain Russell and Callum Booth made way for Jordan Morton and Kyle Jacobs for Livingston, while Pat Clarke was replaced by former Celtic youth player Greig Spence for Raith.
In the closing stages of the game, Livingston generally seemed comfortable enough with their lead and held onto the ball in a better fashion than Raith, who created precious little in the way of clear-cut opportunities.
The experienced Joe Hamill was deployed as Stuart Anderson left the field for Raith, while Livingston’s Marc McNulty was brought off to to allow Danny Mullen the final remaining minutes of the game.
Indeed, Livingston may have added a third goal to proceedings deep in injury time when sub Jordan Morton ran at the Raith defence, but his shot was stopped by David McGurn.
Midfielder Stefan Scougall summed up his performance afterwards, saying: “I thought we played well at times, although it was a little scrappy. Raith were maybe on top in terms of the set-pieces they created, but we generally dealt well with them. We said before the game that they would be a threat from set-pieces, and that was exactly how they managed to get their goal.”
“We’re now eleven games unbeaten and we’ll be aiming to continue the momentum next week when we travel away for a hard game against Morton. Today has put us in high spirits for that, and we’ll just concentrate on finishing as high up the table as possible.”
Livingston manager Gareth Evans was equally pleased with the performance of his team, who overtake Raith in the table and now sit in fourth place: “Our first half performance was great, and we could have been out of sight at half-time with the chances we created. Getting the second goal when we did meant that Raith came back at us and gave us a hard second half.
“We picked up from our second-half performance against Partick Thistle last week, so it was a really pleasing performance.”
Evans also insisted that Livingston’s victory, combined with the fact that they have games in hand over rivals above them in the table, did not mean that they should necessarily be considered title-contenders: “It’s fine having games in hand, but you have to win those games, that’s the hard bit. We’ll just keep working, keep putting in performances and see where it takes us.”
Raith manager Grant Murray was decidedly disappointed at the final result: “We’re obviously disappointed that we went behind, although we managed to get ourselves back in the game. There were chances at both ends, but losing the second goal was a killer. We had the chance to clear it – of course, we didn’t, and they were able to put it into the back of the net. We knew it was always going to be a hard place to come, Livingston are a good side, but there were chances to get a second goal. Unfortunately we couldn’t take them.
“I’m disappointed because I felt after last week’s win, we were coming here with confidence. We lost it after the second goal, even though there was a lot of time still to play.
“It’s especially frustrating when teams above us dropped points today, because a win today would have kept Livingston below us, but there are still plenty of points to play for this season, so for me I have to go back to trying to get a win under our belts and hopefully we can go on a run.”
Livingston: Andrew McNeil, Kevin McCann, Callum Booth (Kyle Jacobs ’69), Jesus Garcia Tena, Craig Barr, Burton O’Brien, Anthony Andreu, Liam Fox, Marc McNulty (Danny Mullen ’83), Stefan Scougall, Iain Russell (Jordan Morton ’63).
Subs not used: Callum Fordyce, Darren Jamieson.
Raith Rovers: David McGurn, Jason Thomson, Eddie Malone, Simon Mensing, Dougie Hill, Stuart Anderson (Joe Hamill ’79), Grant Anderson, Allan Walker, Brian Graham, Pat Clarke (Greig Spence ’67), David Smith.
Subs not used: Laurie Ellis, Reece Donaldson, Ross Laidlaw.