Hibs reaction: Aberdeen’s cutting edge was the only difference

Aberdeen's Gary Mackay-Steven scores the only goal of the game against Hibs. Pic: SNS
Aberdeen's Gary Mackay-Steven scores the only goal of the game against Hibs. Pic: SNS
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Changed days indeed. Four years ago Derek McInnes took Aberdeen to Easter Road and endured “the worst game I had ever seen”, a drab end-of-season no-scoring draw between two teams trapped in the 
bottom six of the Scottish Premiership table.

Back then there was nothing to play for, Hibs, unbeknown to them at the time, were slowly but surely spiralling towards the relegation trap door although a seventh-placed finish just ahead of the Dons masked what was to befall them 12 months later.

In the intervening period the two clubs have travelled different routes, McInnes building a side which recognised as second best in the country while Hibs, under Alan Stubbs and now Neil Lennon, have fought simply to reclaim their place in the top flight.

Having done that, Lennon has readily acknowledged Aberdeen as his benchmark, where he wants to take Hibs in the coming seasons.

A glance at the table this morning would suggest the Hibs boss has some way to go to fulfil that ambition, Aberdeen sitting ten points ahead, neck-and-neck with champions Celtic.

Yet the evidence of not only this game but the Scottish Cup semi-final clash between these clubs only a few months ago would appear to point to the contrary, two matches admittedly lost but both only by a single goal.

Two one-off encounters, admittedly, but the one glaring difference at the moment is consistency, the Dons unbeaten in their nine league matches so far while Hibs, although they’ve gone to Ibrox and Celtic Park and emerged unbeaten, are, as Lennon has often claimed, a bit “Jekyll and Hyde” – particularly when it comes to results.

Even more so at home where they have won just won of four games and although they have yet to taste defeat on the road, there have been draws which could – and should – have been turned into victories.

On this occasion it was a 
defeat which could easily have earned a point, Hibs again failing to show that touch of quality at the top of the pitch, that final pass found wanting, those crosses from either flank invariably failing to evade the first defender.

And Aberdeen showed them how it could be done, the defining moment a wonderfully crafted goal as Kari Arnason drilled a low pass forward for Stevie May to touch it towards Kenny McLean, his ball as well-timed as Gary Mackay-Steven’s run, the winger ghosting in to slip a shot beyond the exposed Ross Laidlaw and into the far corner of his net.

“It was the one real genuine bit of quality in the game,” insisted Lennon. “But in front of goal we were poor, our final ball was poor.”

Having got their noses in front McInnes’ players demonstrated exactly why they’ve now conceded just six goals in nine matches, a record bettered only by Celtic, as ensured goalkeeper Joe Lewis had only one save of note to make, throwing himself across goal to push away Anthony Stokes’ free kick minutes into the second half.

Thereafter Lennon’s side had the Dons hanging on for long spells, McInnes signalling his willingness to hold what they had with his substitutions, Mackay-Steven and then Ryan Christie withdrawn in favour of midfielder Dominic Ball and central defender Mark Reynolds.

Lennon, on the other hand, went for it, the attack-minded Brandon Barker, Danny Swanson and Simon Murray all thrown on in what proved to be a vain attempt to snatch what would have been a well-merited point.

“Any time you get a winning performance at Easter Road you have to be pleased,” admitted McInnes. “You are going to have to do a lot of things well. It was a very even game but we managed to curtail Hibs 
attacking threats quite well.

“There were moments they asked the question, but we managed to see that off and Joe Lewis didn’t have too much to do.”

As well as McInnes may have felt his players coped with all that Hibs threw at them, Lennon was adamant his side could have given the Dons even more problems, bemoaning the fact that of the three goals scored in Hibs last three matches none have come from his forwards.

He said: “ I need more from my attacking players. John McGinn got two at Celtic Park and Paul Hanlon scored at Ross County so for three games none of my forward players, either the wide men or striker have been on the scoresheet.

“It’s not as if we haven’t created enough chances, we are. I’m not big on stats, but they show we had 16 attempts on goal and only three were on target. I can’t keep saying we are playing well while dropping points.

“That’s one point in nine at home and that has to change.”

Other than that, though, Lennon was adamant he wasn’t going to lambast his players, happy enough with their efforts while ultimately disappointed with the outcome of the game.

He said: “Aberdeen are a very good side but we matched them for long periods of the game and I thought we deserved something out of it. I cannot be over-critical but we have to be better in front of goal with the amount of domination we have at times.

“Aberdeen are a good team, physical and they defended well. We forced the issue and made them defend deeper. You are thinking a goal is going to come because of the force of our pressure but we just need that bit of ruthlessness or execution of pass which was wanting.”

For his part, McInnes was happy to depart with all three points, agreeing with Lennon the game had been a great advert for the Scottish top flight, one played in front of a 19,000 plus crowd, and in stark contrast to his first visit to Easter Road as Dons boss in the spring of 2013.

He recalled: “I like playing here and have had some good results here in the league. I remember my first game, it was 0-0, in front of 6500 in the bottom six. The worst game I have ever seen, two teams with nothing to play for, end-of-season, drab.

“But this was vibrant. Hibs are going the right way and I feel we are in a good place and ready to try to kick on. It was good to see the energy and passion of both sets of fans. There were a lot of good players on show. It was pleasing to win what was always going to be a tough game for us.”