A hard-earned but uninspiring goalless draw with Kilmarnock was enough to take Hibs within a point of city rivals Hearts ahead of Saturday’s Edinburgh derby at Tynecastle.
On a night when Motherwell’s defeat away to Aberdeen assured them of a top-six place, the Easter Road side were unable to display the required quality to get the better of third-place Kilmarnock.
However, they dug deep, particularly in the second half, to ensure the visitors weren’t allowed to leave with the three points their play arguably merited. In the game’s most defining moment, Hibs goalkeeper Ofir Marciano had to make a spectacular second-half save to deny Jordan Jones after an error from Paul Hanlon. Aside from this moment of quality goalkeeping, the main positive from the evening from a Hibs perspective was that Paul Heckingbottom was able to extend his unbeaten run in the Premiership to seven matches.
The head coach made one change to the side that started last Friday’s 2-1 victory over Livingston as Vykintas Slivka, who made a positive impact as a substitute at the Tony Macaroni Arena, came back into the starting line-up, with Darren McGregor dropping to the bench. This meant Mark Milligan, who is usually deployed at the base of midfield, moved back to centre-back to partner Hanlon in a team which was identical to the one that started the previous home match against Motherwell before the international break.
With both sides going into the match in good recent form and separated only by six points in the battle for the Europa League places, this always looked like being a closely-matched encounter. This was certainly the case in the first half as the two teams completely nullified each other, with clear chances from open play non-existent before the break.
The first notable attempt of the match came after 28 minutes when Kilmarnock defender Stuart Findlay headed straight at Marciano from a Rory McKenzie corner. Hibs’ only real opening of the half came three minutes later when a flowing counter-attack involving Stephane Omeonga, Florian Kamberi and Slivka led to Daryl Horgan getting a sight of goal from a central position but his curling effort from 25 yards sailed harmlessly over Daniel Bachmann’s crossbar.
The match was briefly enlivened by a period of needle when Omeonga clashed with Youssouf Mulumbu moments before McKenzie was booked for a foul on Lewis Stevenson.
Four minutes before the break, Kilmarnock threatened from another set-piece, but Kirk Broadfoot’s header from McKenzie’s free-kick was easily gathered by Marciano.
In an attempt to bring some cutting edge to proceedings, Killie manager Steve Clarke sent on Kris Boyd for the start of the second half in place of Conor McAleny, who had struggled to cause Hanlon and Milligan any problems in the first half. The veteran striker was the last man to score a winning goal for the Ayrshire side at Easter Road when he consigned Terry Butcher’s free-falling team to a relegation play-off almost five years ago. Heckingbottom, meanwhile, made a tactical tweak as he switched from 4-5-1 to 4-4-2, with Kamberi, who had been operating on the left flank, moving back to his more familiar centre-forward berth alongside Marc McNulty.
Kilmarnock won themselves a free-kick in a dangerous area a minute after the restart but Findlay’s header from another McKenzie delivery drifted harmlessly over the bar.
Bachmann was given his first test of the evening when Mallan fizzed a low 30-yard strike towards goal, but the on-loan Watford goalkeeper was equal to it.
Hibs had a major escape in the 56th minute when Hanlon, under no real pressure, passed the ball straight to Jordan Jones, who duly surged through on Marciano’s goal. Thankfully for the Hibs centre-back, the Israeli goalkeeper raised a firm hand to expertly prevent the Killie winger from clipping the ball beyond him and giving the visitors the lead. Hanlon displayed his relief and gratitude by rushing to high-five his goalkeeper.
Heckingbottom, whose substitutions and mid-match tactical tweaks have generally worked well for him throughout his two months in charge of Hibs, introduced McGregor to replace the ineffective Slivka, allowing Milligan to move back into midfield.
Kilmarnock had a decent opportunity in the 72nd minute when Broadfoot headed substitute Chris Burke’s corner back into the danger area but Boyd was unable to get enough purchase on his volley and it trickled wide.
A minute later, Hibs shouted for a penalty when they felt David Gray’s corner had been blocked by the arm of Findlay.
Oli Shaw then came on in place of Kamberi and within minutes of entering the fray, the young striker glanced a header just wide from a Stevenson delivery.
Kilmarnock pressed in the closing stages but Hibs held firm.
Hibs (4-1-4-1): Marciano, Gray, Milligan, Hanlon, Stevenson; Mallan; Horgan (F Murray 77), Slivka (McGregor 64), Omeonga, Kamberi (Shaw 73); McNulty. Unused subs: Bogdan, Bartley, Mackie, Allan.
Kilmarnock (4-3-3): Bachmann; O’Donnell, Broadfoot, Findlay, Taylor; Mulumbu, Dicker, Tshibola (Burke 70); McKenzie (Power 70), McAleny (K Boyd 46), Jones. Unused subs: MacDonald, Millar, Bruce, Waters.
Referee: Steven McLean.