A LACK of cutting edge when it mattered ultimately undermined a promising Hibs performance in the Ibrox cauldron yesterday.
Rangers are a buoyant team under Mark Warburton at present and, having triumphed 6-2 in Leith the Petrofac Training Cup four weeks previously, they were widely expected to be too strong for an Easter Road side who have made a stuttering start to the season. In the end, the title favourites prevailed courtesy of a sensational second-half free-kick strike from James Tavernier. However, this was no routine win for the Ibrox side. Had Jason Cummings or the otherwise impressive Liam Henderson been ruthless enough to capitalise on golden opportunities while the game was still goalless, Alan Stubbs’ team could easily have been sitting level on points with Rangers. Instead they find themselves six points adrift of the momentum-gathering Ibrox side just three games into the Championship campaign.
As was the case in last season’s Scottish Cup semi-final against Falkirk and in the play-off matches against Rangers in May, Hibs were left to rue the fine margins of football.
“How we’ve not scored is frustrating, especially when you’ve created the amount of clear-cut chances that we have and that’s the difference between winning and losing games,” said Stubbs.
“My team played the way I expected them to. I thought for long periods we did very well and our gameplan was working really well. Goals change games, though. We had good chances when the score was 0-0 and you have to take them. When you play against one of your biggest rivals you have to be clinical. Football is defined by moments in games and we had quite a few chances at 0-0 that could have the put the game in a totally different perspective.”
After an underwhelming start to the campaign, Hibs were always likely to be subjected to a stern test of character at a packed-out Ibrox. The expectant home support – buoyed by five competitive wins from five under Warburton – cranked up the volume as the teams emerged and it was easy to fear the worst for a Hibs side still battling to rediscover their collective mojo in the wake of that Challenge Cup capitulation a month earlier. The Easter Road side showed four changes to the side that lost 6-2, with recent recruits Dan Carmichael, Henderson and John McGinn, as well as the fit-again Martin Boyle, all added to the mix since then. Thankfully for the visiting support, there was a far steelier look to Stubbs’ team than there had been on that alarming July lunchtime in Leith.
After an opening ten minutes or so which the head coach described as “tentative”, he was relieved to see his side “start to believe in themselves” as the first half wore on. The hosts had the first half-chance of the match in the ninth minute when a heavy Fraser Fyvie passback put Mark Oxley in trouble and Martyn Waghorn charged down the goalkeeper’s clearance, but Hibs eventually snuffed out the danger. Three minutes later Waghorn bulleted a header from a Barrie McKay corner over as Rangers started with their tails up. However, Hibs gradually found their way into the game and in the 16th minute Boyle had a decent chance when he nicked the ball off dithering Rangers goalkeeper, Wes Foderingham, only for defender Danny Wilson to get back and make a vital saving tackle.
Cummings then spurned a good opportunity for the Easter Road side in the 21st minute when he met Carmichael’s cross from the left just outside the six-yard box but his acrobatic left-foot volley was charged down by Lee Wallace. Boyle then flashed a low shot just wide from the edge of the box in the 36th minute as Hibs began to look the likelier side.
Although the Ibrox natives were growing a touch restless, their team always looked a threat when they ventured into Hibs territory. The hosts almost made the breakthrough in 43 minutes when Waghorn had an angled shot on the turn kicked off the line by David Gray after another McKay corner caused panic in the Hibs area.
The visitors should have gone in front just before the break when Boyle burst down the right and slipped a lovely low ball across the face of goal for Cummings, but, from the edge of the six-yard-box, the striker lacked conviction as he shot straight at Foderingham.
Galvanised by this let-off, Rangers started the second half on the front foot and swiftly set about removing most of the momentum which had been building in Hibs’ play before the interval. In the 48th minute Oxley had to dive to his left to claw out a Jason Holt shot after the former Hearts midfielder had met a Nicky Law cross in a central position 12 yards out.
Hibs then lost captain Gray to a hamstring injury, paving the way for Dylan McGeouch to come on for his first appearance since joining Hibs on a three-year contract on Friday. The former Celtic midfielder, who spent last season on loan at Easter Road, was thrown straight into Gray’s right-back berth, and he managed to help his team survive a dangerous flow of attacks in which Rangers looked likely to make the breakthrough.
Having seemingly weathered this early-second-half storm, Hibs almost went ahead when Liam Fontaine saw a glancing header from a John McGinn free-kick tipped away by Foderingham in the 62nd minute. The Edinburgh side then spurned an even better chance a minute later when Cummings squared for Henderson on the edge of the box, but, with just the goalkeeper to beat, the on-loan Celtic midfielder skied his effort.
The visitors were made to rue those misses in the 65th minute after McGeouch was penalised for handball close to the bye-line in the right-back area. Although the angle looked more suited to a cross, right-back Tavernier, who had scored a superb goal at Easter Road last month, curled a sensational free-kick over Oxley and just under the bar, into the far corner of the net.
“At the time, I said to the referee my hand was at my side,” said McGeouch. “I haven’t raised it and he has smashed the ball off my arm and leg. He said I had raised my arm towards the ball but I disagreed and made my feelings known. I thought it was a poor decision.”
Hibs almost found an instant response when Carmichael burst down the left and cut the ball back for Henderson, but the teenager scuffed his effort wide. Hibs had some decent possession in the closing stages, but were unable to force another clear opening as Rangers took a firm early grip of the Championship title race.