IN a breathless, ferociously competitive Edinburgh derby laced with the usual helping of controversy, Hearts exploited Hibs’ ten-men by edging a five-goal thriller with a terrific winning strike from Saulius Mikoliunas.
Six yellow cards and one red, as well as the five goals, were the statistics which told the story of a feverish contest in which Hibs recovered bravely from a dismal start.
The contest began at a blistering pace. The visitors came bustling out of the traps and created a clear-cut opening for Abdessalam Benjelloun in the first minute. Ten yards from goal with only Craig Gordon to beat, the striker blazed a shot wide of the target.
Almost immediately, Hearts responded with a set-piece thrust reminiscent of their best football under George Burley. Christophe Berra’s free-kick was shrewdly flicked on by Edgaras Jankauskas and Roman Bednar slipped the offside trap before cutting the ball back from the bye-line. Timing his run to perfection into the six-yard box, Paul Hartley had the simple task of side-footing the ball past Zibi Malkowski.
In a match played at a frantic pace, Hibs gave no quarter in midfield where both Hartley and Michael Stewart were booked after an early clash. When Stewart felled Hartley with another mistimed challenge later in the half, the former Hearts man was fortunate to stay on the pitch.
The home side squandered an opportunity to double their lead when Bednar sprinted clear of the cover in the inside-left position only to fire a low shot straight at keeper Malkowski.
Hibs also caused Hearts a few problems during the first period thanks to Stewart’s creative touch. His influence grew as the game progressed and his duel with Hartley involved brain as much as brawn. His pass gave Chris Killen a first sighting of goal but Hibs’ top scorer was slack with his finishing and poked an effort wide.
The return of Jankauskas and Bednar up front for Hearts was a telling influence on the outcome as their strength and height caused problems for the visitors.
Aware, no doubt, that Malkowski doesn’t have the safest pair of hands in derby history, Jankauskas was entitled to stalk the Hibs goalkeeper when Hartley’s 48th-minute free-kick was curled towards the far post. Even the big Lithuanian, however, must have been astonished by the fumble which presented him with the simplest chance to score his first goal of the season from a couple of yards.
Hibs responded in a timely manner by forcing a corner thanks to a surging run from Steven Whittaker. Dean Shiels’ kick struck deep into the heart of the box where Killen’s towering header escaped the outstretched arms of Gordon after 54 minutes.
Now enthused about salvaging some reward, Hibs set up the equaliser when Whittaker’s diagonal pass found Shiels on the left of the box. Nerijus Barasa brushed the forward, who went down quickly, and conceded a soft 60th-minute penalty.
Shiels made an expert job of the spot-kick with a well-placed shot but then suffered a bizarre rush of blood to the head. Running to pick up the ball from the back of the net, Shiels careered into Gordon and sent the Hearts keeper crashing to the ground. After consulting with the assistant referee, Mike McCurry decided the challenge was reckless enough to merit a red card and instant dismissal.
Often the villain of the piece in a maroon jersey that season, Mikoliunas was the hero against Hibs with a crisp, controlled shot into the roof of the net with 20 minutes to spare.
Hearts: Gordon, Barasa, Goncalves, Zaliukas, Brellier, Berra, Mikoliunas, Hartley, Jankauskas, Bednar, McCann.
Hibs: Malkowski, Whittaker, Murphy, Martis, Beuzelin, Jones, Brown, Stewart, Killen, Benjelloun, Shiels.