Livi will take a narrow lead into the second leg of the Ladbrokes Premiership play-off semi-final after coming from behind to edge a five-goal thriller at Tannadice.
After Raffaele De Vita and Thomas Mikkelsen had traded goals inside the opening three minutes, Anthony Ralston’s deflected strike had Csaba Laszlo’s side on their way to victory until an extraordinary finish saw Josh Mullin and Scott Pittman strike in the space of two minutes to turn the match on its head before United captain Willo Flood was sent off.
Livi boss David Hopkin made three changes from the 2-0 defeat to the same opposition nine days earlier as Scott Robinson came in for Ryan Hardie – ruled out for the rest of the season with a foot injury – while Jackson Longridge and Josh Mullin replaced Nicky Cadden and Jordan Thompson.
The Lions got off to the perfect start as they stormed into the lead inside two minutes when Scott McDonald was dispossessed in midfield and Robinson played a fine ball through for De Vita to smash a low finish past Harry Lewis and send the travelling fans wild.
Their celebrations would be short-lived, however, as United drew level within a minute when Pittman lost out in midfield and Billy King found himself in acres of space to pick out Mikkelsen who cushioned a fine volley past Neil Alexander to make it 1-1.
The breathless start to proceedings continued on five minutes as Mullin got in down the right and fired a low drive across goal and just wide of the far post. Livi – and De Vita – came close again three minutes later when Robinson lofted a beautiful ball over the top for the Italian but this time Lewis was equal to his volleyed effort, turning it wide of the near post.
Livi were on top and Pittman curled an effort wide of goal on ten minutes after Longridge had flicked the ball on to him before De Vita fizzed a volley over the bar from Declan Gallagher’s cross, although the offside flag was up in any case. A huge moment of controversy came a minute later as Robinson was tripped by Stuart Murdoch in the United box but referee Nick Walsh waved the claims away, to the Lions’ disbelief.
Robinson was then perhaps fortunate only to pick up a yellow card for a strong foul on Flood in midfield before a corner from King was met by Ralston but he fluffed his volley out of play. His connection was far better a minute later as the home side took the lead when Ralston was left in too much space at the edge of the box and his low strike may have been heading wide before Longridge slid into clear but could only turn it into the net.
The Lions almost drew level within two minutes as De Vita got in behind yet again and skipped round Lewis but the angle was against him and his effort flew into the side netting. It proved a rare foray forward for the Lions in the remainder of the half as Ralston came close again on 35 minutes when he gathered King’s corner but saw his curling effort cleared off the line by Gallagher. The on-loan Celtic man went close again on the stroke of half-time when he controlled another King corner but fired a yard over the bar to ensure the Lions were only one goal down at the break.
Half-time: Dundee United 2-1 Livingston
United picked up where they left off after the restart and came close to a third goal on 51 minutes when McDonald met a cross at the near post but Alexander produced a superb reaction save to keep out his diving header.
The home side were dominating possession but Livi’s goal remained relatively unthreatened and in fact it was the Lions who had the next effort on goal on 69 minutes when Mullin’s cross fell to De Vita at the edge of the box and his low shot was hacked clear by Mohsni. That would be the Italian’s last act as he went off soon after to be replaced by Nicky Cadden.
United’s first yellow card was shown to Flood on 73 minutes after he brought down Robinson to halt a Livi counter attack, with Lewis doing well to gather the resulting free kick under pressure.
Livi were enjoying a better spell but few could have foreseen what was coming as they turned the tie on its head in the space of three minutes. First, Robinson played a ball over the top for Mullin on 77 minutes and he burst between two United defenders before poking a fine finish past Lewis to level the scores.
A second Lions change saw Keaghan Jacobs replace Robinson before the Lions roared into the lead on 80 minutes when brilliant pressure from Byrne forced a mistake from Murdoch and Pittman raced in before cutting inside past Mohsni and clipping a fine finish past the advancing Lewis and spark wild scenes of celebration among the travelling supporters.
Flood’s frustrations got the better of him with three minutes to play as, with Byrne trying to prevent him taking a quick free kick, he shoved the Livi man out of the way with the referee barely five yards away, leaving him with little alternative than to show the United captain a second yellow card. The United bench and a BT Sport cameraman also felt his wrath as he made his way off the field.
Gallagher saw a header comfortably saved by Lewis as the match moved into its final minute, before the Lions made their final change as Thompson replaced Longridge. Mohsni then limped off for the hosts to be replaced by Mark Durnan as Livi held on comfortably to ensure they will head back to the Tony Macaroni Arena with a one-goal advantage.
Full-time: Dundee United 2-3 Livingston
Dundee Utd: Lew, Murdoch, Robson, Ralston, Mohsni (Durnan 90), McDonald, Fraser, King (Lyng 76), Stanton, Flood, Mikkelsen
Subs not used: McMullan, Edjenguele, Slater, Gillespie, Donaldson
Goals: Mikkelsen (3), Ralston (28)
Livingston: Alexander, Lithgow, Halkett, Gallagher, Mullin, Longridge (Thompson 90), Pittman, Byrne, De Vita (Cadden 70), Miller, Robinson (Jacobs 79)
Subs not used: Maley, McMillan, Frizzell, Buchanan
Goals: De Vita (2), Mullin (77), Pittman (80)
Referee: Nick Walsh
Match Report: Andy Crawford
Photos: Rae Irvine