DOMINIQUE MALONGA regained his mantle as leading scorer at Easter Road, but the striker has just one goal – to win promotion.
The Congolese hitman claimed a double as Hibs strolled to a comfortable win over struggling Dumbarton.
After missing four games in January while on Africa Cup of Nations duty and then sitting out the Scottish Cup win over Arbroath through suspension, Saturday’s goals were Malonga’s first since the victory at Raith Rovers just before Christmas. In his absence, Jason Cummings overtook his tally of 11 with a red-hot streak in which he scored six in just five games. Malonga may now be back on top but it is the game of leapfrog Hibs are currently playing with Rangers that is of more interest to the Paris-born hitman than the friendly rivalry with his team-mate.
Having seen Rangers retake second place thanks to their win over Raith Rovers the previous night, Alan Stubbs’ side pulled two points ahead with a professional performance against Dumbarton.
It was one which Son boss Ian Murray conceded had flattered his part-timers, the former Hibs captain admitting his players could have been on the receiving end of a “real hiding.” Malonga has called on his side to continue to be as ruthless in the coming weeks as they seek an immediate return to the Premiership. He said: “The most important thing was the result, we must keep going. The most important thing for us is the play-offs at the end of the season. We have to play like that in every game. My target, the personal goal I want, is to go up. If I finish top scorer it will be good but I think the ultimate goal for us is to go up. For everyone, for the fans, we have to go up.”
Coming off the back of yet another impressive win over Rangers, the visit of Dumbarton could have proved problematic for Hibs, who have struggled at times this season to overcome sides who have pitched up in Edinburgh intent on adopting a defensive approach. It was evident from the start that Dumbarton were happy to try and keep things tight, and, with just one point from their previous six matches, few could have blamed them.
This placed the onus on Hibs to find a way through a well-drilled side who, at times, had every player back inside their own penalty area as they sought to turn back the waves of green threatening to engulf them.
They did so for almost half an hour until Franck Dja Djedje, chosen ahead of Cummings to partner Malonga as Stubbs rotated his squad, took a Keith Watson cross with his back to goal, held off the challenge of Mark Gilhaney and swivelled to fire a low shot beyond Danny Rogers. Three minutes later it was all over for Dumbarton as Malonga contorted his body to get his head to another Watson cross. The Congo man almost struck again when he took a sumptuous pass from Fraser Fyvie and shot just past. Rogers then managed to beat a Danny Handling shot round the post and he knew little about a Watson drive which clipped Stuart Findlay and then struck the goalkeeper’s left foot. As Murray admitted, it could have been a hammering. The former Hibee told his players during the interval to hang in and hope that they could force their way back into the game, but this hope became a forlorn one when Malonga and Handling dithered over a Scott Robertson off-load before the Congo striker thumped it home.
Thereafter it was little more than a training game, every player bar Hibs goalkeeper Mark Oxley camped in the Dumbarton half. The visitors managed only the occasional foray upfield and, in the entire 90 minutes, offered just one effort on target, a tame header from Garry Fleming which was never going to trouble the on-loan Hull City stopper.
The goals feast which looked likely never quite materialised, with Fyvie and Handling both firing inches wide, while Mark Wilson denied Dja Djedje a second with a last-ditch tackle and Scott Agnew found himself in the right place to take Paul Hanlon’s powerful header off the line. Add in two clear-cut penalty claims and it was easy to understand Murray’s relief – amid his disappointment at his side’s ineffective display – that Dumbarton had escaped a humiliating result.
“We never got to grips with Hibs and 3-0 probably flattered us a bit,” said the Sons boss. “The way Hibs play, they score a lot of goals and they made a lot more chances but couldn’t take them. They beat Rangers 4-0 here so it was going to be difficult for us.”
As Stubbs has stressed in recent days, at this stage of the season it’s all about results and, to that end, Hibs appear to have plenty of momentum at this crucial point. They have lost just one defeat in their last 19 league matches, leaving many to wonder how their season might have panned out if the former Celtic and Everton defender had a few more weeks to rebuild the threadbare squad he inherited last summer. Now, though, the head coach has options in every area. Recent recruit Fyvie slotted into midfield in the absence of Scott Allan, who was laid low by a chest infection, while David Gray was also given a breather as he continues to recover from surgery, and Dja Djedje and Malonga were paired together up front for the first time.
The head coach said: “I’m in a nice position that I have to make decisions. It’s about managing the squad because we are going to be busy in the run-in. We are still involved in the Scottish Cup as well so I am wanting the players to be as fresh as possible. We have a good squad so we can give players a rest.”
Joking he was delighted to see both Dja Djedje and Malonga get the goals as it suggested he’d “got it right,” Stubbs said: “We spoke before the game about having to be patient, to keep moving the ball and waiting for opportunities to arise.
“We were a bit slow to start with but I felt once we got into our stride which, to be fair, we did after ten minutes or so and got the first goal put the onus on the opposition. At 2-0 we were in total control. We didn’t want to put ourselves under pressure by conceding a goal from a set piece or a throw-in so it was a very professional performance. We dominated the game from start to finish and we could have scored a lot more.”