HIBS gave those who were questioning whether they could mix it with the big boys at the top of the SPL the most emphatic answer as they recorded their first victory at Fir Park in five years.
Four games without a win and third-placed Kilmarnock closing to within two points had heaped the pressure on Alex McLeish’s players as they prepared to face a Motherwell side boasting an impressive run of just one defeat in eight matches.
But with many looking for further signs of the Easter Road outfit buckling, McLeish’s players simply rolled up their sleeves and met the challenge head on, as they built on an impressive performance during the week against Celtic to lever Motherwell aside.
Hard work was in evidence from every player in green and white, a workrate which Motherwell manager Billy Davies admitted his side simply didn’t match.
At times, Hibs were a joy to watch as they knocked the ball around in style. They had rediscovered that work ethic and in this match they were suitably rewarded for the graft they put in.
It was no more evident than at the first and second goals.
For the first, Mixu Paatelainen’s determination forced Benito Kemble into a simple mistake, allowing John O’Neil to place a clever ball between Stephen McMillan and his goalkeeper, Steven Woods. As the young defender hesitated, David Zitelli showed the predatory instincts of a top striker, hooking his leg round to send the ball flashing into the net.
Hibs’ second, just three minutes after the interval, may have owed much to luck, Ged Brannan’s attempted clearance from Zitelli’s corner crashing off team-mate Derek Townsley and in, but, again, it was the persistence of Paatelainen which paved the way.
While Kemble was content to usher O’Neil’s sliced shot over the bye-line, Paatelainen decided a seemingly lost cause was worth chasing and managed to knock the ball off his opponent to win the corner kick which brought such a rich reward. Having done all the hard work, Hibs were then able to turn on the style. Zitelli’s second goal of the match was a moment to savour.
Russell Latapy threaded a perfect ball inside Martyn Corrigan, Zitelli was on to it in a flash and before Woods could move he had lashed a tremendous left-foot shot from an acute angle high into the net, a goal of breathtaking power and precision which had virtually everyone shaking their heads in disbelief.
A moment of slackness at the back gifted Motherwell substitute Stuart Elliot a consolation goal to take the shine off another impressive performance by Hibs.
The manager, naturally, was delighted to see his side win so convincingly and, again, with more than a little style. On this occasion, McLeish got both the result and the type of performance which he knew his side were capable of producing.
It was a victory which kept Hibs hard on the heels of SPL leaders Celtic, but, perhaps more importantly given the Easter Road side’s declaration that the title may be beyond them, it opened up a five-point gap on Killie.
Hibs: Franks, Lovell, Smith, Fenwick, Sauzee, Laursen, Jack, Latapy, O’Neil, Paatelainen, Zitelli.