HIBS gave those who were questioning whether they could mix it with the big boys at the top of the SPL table the most emphatic of answers as they recorded their first victory at Fir Park in five years.
Four games without a win and third-placed Kilmarnock closing to within two points had heaped the pressure on Alex McLeish’s players as they prepared to face a Motherwell side boasting an impressive run of just one defeat in eight matches.
But with many looking for further signs of the Easter Road outfit buckling, McLeish’s players simply rolled up the sleeves and met the challenge head on, building on an impressive performance in midweek against Celtic to lever Motherwell aside.
Fir Park boss Billy Davies described the difference between the sides after 90 minutes as “night and day,” having no complaint at the final 3-1 scoreline in Hibs’ favour. There was, however, no secret in just how Hibs managed to win at Fir Park for the first time since a Keith Wright double gave them victory on December 2, 1995. Hard work was in evidence from every player in green and white.
It was no more evident than at the first and second goals, Mixu Paatelainen’s determination forcing Benito Kemble into a simple mistake, allowing John O’Neil to place a clever ball between Stephen McMillan and his goalkeeper, Steven Woods.
As the young defender, being targeted at the time by ex-Hearts boss Jim Jefferies when at Bradford City, hesitated, David Zitelli showed the predatory instincts of a top striker, hooking his leg round to send the ball flashing into the net.
Hibs’ second, just three minutes after the interval, may have owed much to luck, Ged Brannan’s attempted clearance from Zitelli’s corner crashing off team-mate Derek Townsley and in, but, again, it was the persistence of Paatelainen which paved the way.
While Kemble was content to see O’Neil’s sliced shot over the bye-line, Paatelainen decided a seemingly lost cause was worth chasing, managing to knock the ball off his opponent to win the corner kick which brought such a rich reward. Having done all the hard work, Hibs were then able to turn on the style, Zitelli’s second of the match, like his winner at Dens Park the previous month, a moment to savour.
Russell Latapy threaded a perfect ball inside Martyn Corrigan, Zitelli was onto it in a flash and before Woods could move he had lashed a tremendous left-foot shot from an acute angle high into the net, a goal of breathtaking power and precision which had virtually everyone shaking their head in disbelief.
A moment of slackness at the back gifted Motherwell substitute Stuart Elliot a consolation goal to take the shine off another impressive performance from Hibs, who still had yet to lose a match under the charge of McLeish.
Hibs went on to finish a clear third in the campaign, securing qualification for the UEFA Cup First Round where they were knocked out by Greek outfit AEK Athens (4-3 on agg) over the two legs.