JACKIE McNamara admitted Dundee United were second best after his Scottish Premiership table-toppers were felled 2-0 by Kilmarnock at Rugby Park on Friday night.
Killie struck twice in three second-half minutes through Tope Obadeyi’s classy finish and a Mark Connolly header, clinching a fourth successive home win, to move up to third place.
The only sour note for boss Allan Johnston was an injury to goalkeeper Craig Samson, who was withdrawn at half-time with a suspected broken toe following a clash with Stuart Armstrong.
Early pacesetters United, who had the chance to go five points clear of Hamilton at the summit, were lacklustre throughout as they suffered a first defeat in seven games.
“There were too many that weren’t at it tonight,” said a frustrated McNamara, whose team lost for the first time since a 6-1 thrashing at champions Celtic in August.
“We were beaten by a bit more desire and willingness to chase lost causes and work hard for the team. I know they’re better than that and so far this season they’ve been up to everything that’s been put to them.”
In an open and engaging first-half, Josh Magennis twice forced saves from Terrors keeper Radoslaw Cierzniak before clipping the top of the crossbar having muscled clear of Callum Morris.
Obadeyi glaringly screwed over from eight yards and the influential Alexei Eremenko volleyed off target as the dominant hosts, who kept possession well on the rain-soaked artificial surface, had the better of the clear-cut opportunities.
At the opposite end, Nadir Ciftci headed Sean Dillon’s cross inches wide and the fit-again Armstrong was denied at point-blank range by Samson, who was replaced by debutant Northern Ireland U21 stopper Conor Brennan at the break after coming off worse in the collision.
Killie were always the more potent attacking force, taking the lead just beyond the hour when Eremenko’s low cross found its way to Obadeyi and the 24-year-old, who netted twice in last weekend’s 3-0 win over Partick Thistle, stabbed home after cleverly nutmegged his marker.
It did not take long for their superiority to be reflected further on the scoreline as, less than minutes later, Eremenko was the provider again with a well-floated corner which Connolly climbed above Jaroslaw Fojut to guide past Cierzniak from eight yards.
As McNamara conceded his side were defeated by “the better team”, the subdued visitors were never at the races and struggled to create openings in east Ayrshire.
Substitute Gary Mackay-Steven almost provided a spark but lashed over from a promising position while Killie’s replacement custodian Brennan – a summer buy from Leicester City – was called upon to deal with a Chris Erskine shot.
McNamara then had to call Ciftci back to the bench after replacing the Turkish striker, who sought to head down the tunnel after enduring a disappointing evening, with Ola Adeyemo.
“I told him to sit down,” explained the United boss on BBC Radio Scotland. “It was a frustrating night for him. I don’t think he was the only one that didn’t perform for us.”
Robbie Muirhead, though, could have widened the margins in Killie’s favour when his dipping drive was kept at bay by Cierzniak in stoppage time.
Killie had lost their previous five encounters with United but issued a huge statement against the team seen as the likeliest challengers to Celtic’s domestic dominance, keeping a third consecutive clean sheet in the process.
And their delighted manager has now called for consistency from his improving side, who have only lost two of their first nine league games.
“We showed what we’re capable and we’ve got to show that week in, week out. We defended really well. The last thing you can do is be complacent. We’ve got to remember the work we’ve put in,” Johnston said.
Kilmarnock (4-2-3-1): Samson 7 (Brennan 45’ 6.5), Barbour 7.5, Connolly 8, Pascali (C) 8.5, Chantler 8, Hamill 8, Clingan 8, Johnston 7.5, Eremenko 9 (Muirhead 80’ 3), Magennis 8, Obadeyi 8. Subs not used: Ashcroft, Slater, McKenzie, Westlake, Ngoo.
Booked: Barbour, Connolly, Eremenko
Goals: Obadeyi (63), Connolly (65)
Dundee United (4-2-3-1): Cierzniak 7, Watson 6.5, Fojut 6, Morris 6.5, Dillon (C) 7, Paton 6.5, Rankin 7, Dow 6.5, Armstrong 7 (Mackay-Steven 64’ 4.5), Erskine 6.5, Ciftci 6 (Adeyemo 76’ 3.5). Subs not used: Szromnik (GK), Telfer, Smith, Spittal, Spark.
Booked: Mackay-Steven, Adeyemo
Man of the match: Alexei Eremenko (Kilmarnock)
Referee: Crawford Allan