It was a tale of two penalties at Tannadice as Hibs had their three-point advantage at the top of the Championship wiped out by their burgeoning title rivals, Dundee United.
Following an underwhelming first period, the visitors spurned a golden chance to open the scoring early in the second half when Martin Boyle had a spot-kick saved by Cammy Bell. It was to prove a pivotal moment as United duly claimed victory courtesy of a Tony Andreu penalty with 17 minutes left.
The result leaves Hibs, who are desperate to win promotion at the third attempt, under serious pressure to reassert themselves at the top of the table during a festive period in which they will be without key midfield duo John McGinn and Fraser Fyvie. Perhaps crucially, United, who now trail them only on goal difference, are the team with the momentum having ended Hibs’ six-game unbeaten run and extended their own to 11 matches in all competitions.
Hibs’ resolve was always likely to be tested by the injury-enforced absence of McGinn and Fyvie, but they were able to include two established deputies in the shape of Marvin Bartley and Dylan McGeouch, who both came in for their first starts since mid-October. Boyle, with four goals in his previous four games, kept his place ahead of top scorer Jason Cummings, who was again listed among the substitutes.
The 3000 travelling supporters – many of whom were sporting green Santa hats provided by club sponsor Marathonbet – were in fine voice leading up to kick-off, with the presence of Scottish Cup-winning head coach Alan Stubbs, who was working as a pitchside pundit for BT Sport, adding to the buoyant atmosphere in the away end. The United fans had also turned out in good numbers, and the sight of both sides emerging from the tunnel in Day-Glo strips – Hibs were in their luminous yellow away kit – made for a colourful spectacle in front of Tannadice’s biggest crowd in nine months.
Despite the sense of anticipation in the build-up to the Championship’s biggest match of the season so far, it was slow to ignite. United had the first opening of the game after two minutes when Nick van der Velden’s shot from just inside the box was blocked by Liam Fontaine and Willo Flood scuffed the rebound well wide from 18 yards out.
Hibs gradually began to ease their way into the match and registered their first attempt at goal in the 13th minute when Andrew Shinnie saw a firm left-footed shot from the edge of the box held by home goalkeeper Cammy Bell. That was as close as the visitors were to get in a first half which brought few clear opportunities at either end.
United threatened to cut the visitors open with a slick move down the left four minutes later, but Hibs captain David Gray snuffed out the danger with a solid and magnificently-timed tackle on Blair Spittal to stop the winger delivering his cross from the left. Andreu, the on-form United attacker, then looped an effort inches wide after a Darren McGregor tackle had broken to him 30 yards out.
At the other end, Liam Fontaine clipped in a teasing cross from the left, but Gray, bursting in at the back post, mistimed his leap and the chance was gone.
United were the livelier side for much of the first half, however, and they went close in the 27th minute when Andreu shot just past from 25 yards out after being set up by Spittal.
Hibs had a let-off just after the half-hour when Paul Hanlon gifted the ball to Andreu, who laid it off to Van der Velden, but, with things opening up for the Dutchman, he got his pass to Scott Fraser on the right flank all wrong and the visitors were able to regroup and clear the danger.
The visitors, who were struggling to make headway in the final third, were presented with their first real opening of the match in the 35th minute when Spittal’s slack passback to the keeper was intercepted by Boyle, but the striker’s concentration wavered at a crucial moment and he allowed Mark Durnan to get back and clear the danger.
United should have gone ahead three minutes later when Andreu’s shot from the edge of the box broke off Hanlon into the path of Spittal eight yards out, but the ever-dependable Darren McGregor deflected the winger’s effort over the bar for a corner. The hosts went close again just before the break when Andreu shot just over from over from the edge of the box after being set up by Jamie Robson’s cutback.
The second half was to prove a livelier affair. After Charlie Telfer went close for the hosts, Shinnie shot wide from the edge of the box for the visitors. In the 52nd minute, Ofir Marciano was called upon to make his first notable save of the game, and the Israeli did well to dive to his left and claw away a powerful strike from Telfer.
Hibs had a golden chance to seize the initiative two minutes later when Boyle was tripped by Lewis Toshney as a he burst on to a loose ball in the box. Boyle’s spot-kick was tame, however, and Bell dived to his right to make his seventh penalty save of the season, shootouts included. It was to prove a pivotal moment.
There was a flashpoint in the 56th minute when Holt took umbrage at being caught by Flood, sparking a mini brawl. The livid Holt had to be restrained by captain Gray before both he and the United midfielder were booked. Bell denied Hibs again just before the hour when he scrambled Shinnie’s near-post flick from a Gray cross behind for a corner.
Hibs sent on Cummings for Boyle in the 65th minute. However, it was a substitution for United three minutes later which was to have a more telling effect on the game. Simon Murray came on for Van der Velden and, within five minutes, the flame-haired striker, who had been a summer transfer target for Hibs, won a penalty when he was bundled over by Fontaine in the box after skinning Hanlon wide on the right. Andreu made no mistake in sending Marciano the wrong away from the spot.