Hibs rekindled their hopes of pipping Falkirk to second place in the Championship table as they edged out Rangers in a five-goal thriller barely a month before they meet again in the final of the William Hill Scottish Cup.
Twice Alan Stubbs’ side were two goals ahead only to have their lead trimmed but, following a nervy four minutes of added-on time, they hung on to cut the Bairns’ lead to three points, Peter Houston’s men having played a game more.
Jason Cummings grabbed his by now-customary goal against the Ibrox side, capitalising on a dreadful mix-up as Rob Kiernan didn’t react to James Tavernier’s throw-in, the 20-year-old needing no second invitation to help himself to his 24th goal of the season.
Rangers goalkeeper Wes Foderingham blundered as he fumbled an Anthony Stokes cross into his own net before, at the other end, Mark Oxley failed to deal with Tavernier’s cross, the ball coming off his bar for Jason Holt to stab home.
But Niklas Gunnarsson’s first goal for the Edinburgh club stretched their lead yet again only for Barrie McKay to give Rangers renewed hope as he hammered a shot into the top corner of the net.
Hibs, though, hung on for only their second league win in eight outings, a vital three points bagged with games rapidly running out.
A dress rehearsal for next month this might have been, but it was one Rangers could afford to approach in a relaxed manner, the Championship title wrapped up with some ease thanks, in no small measure, to Hibs’ catastrophic run of results through February and March.
But, if putting down a marker ahead of that showdown at Hampden on May 21 was perhaps all Mark Warburton’s players were determined to do, this was a game from which the Easter Road outfit badly needed all three points. Trailing Falkirk by six albeit with this one of two games in hand, Stubbs’ side knew full well that defeat would leave them needing favours from elsewhere with the end of the regular season only 11 days away.
There was no guard of honour for Rangers in this their first league outing since taking the title, Stubbs adamant the personal phone calls of congratulation he’d made to both Mark Warburton and his assistant Davie Weir 15 days ago were more than sufficient.
From the number of empty seats around three sides of Easter Road, it appeared many Hibs fans, believing that overhauling the Bairns was a case of hope rather than expectation, had opted to watch from the comfort of their own armchairs.
But those who had turned up were in full cry after only five minutes, Tavernier’s throw-in catching Kiernan fast asleep and, with Danny Wilson unable to get across in time, Cummings made the most of the opportunity, racing through to thump a shot beyond Foderingham for his eighth goal against Rangers, four of them having come this season.
Stubbs’ decision to restore Oxley to the side despite Conrad Logan’s heroics in last weekend’s semi-final victory over Dundee United had provoked much debate among the Hibs support, not all of it entirely supportive of the head coach.
But his No.1 justified that move, keeping Hibs level when Kenny Miller’s flick left Tavernier in a one-on-one situation and looking favourite to score. But Oxley stood big and threw up his right hand to turn the ball aside.
Rangers certainly enjoyed the bulk of possession in the first quarter of the game, countered by Hibs’ 3-5-2 formation with both Cummings and Stokes more than willing to track back deep into their own half when called upon.
But, despite territorial superiority, the Ibrox side were stunned again when Hibs doubled their advantage.
On-loan Celtic striker Stokes was wide on the right when he took possession before firing in a cross towards Foderingham’s back post. The goalkeeper looked to have taken it but somehow fumbled it into his net to leave those fans behind him shell-shocked.
The Rangers players were equally stunned, Miller’s frustration getting the better of him when, having been robbed by the marauding John McGinn, he attempted to trip the midfielder as he burst away from him, an action which resulted in a yellow card.
Hibs were making the most of what they did have, Stokes using his strength to hold off Kiernan only to toe-poke the ball straight at Foderingham. Cummings would have felt aggrieved to pick up a booking for diving when he appeared to slip when, having collected Stokes’ cutback, he attempted to round Kiernan.
Hibs had looked reasonably comfortable at the back but, four minutes from the interval, Rangers pulled themselves back into the game. Oxley misjudged Tavernier’s cross from the right, failed to knock the ball over the bar, allowing it to hit the woodwork and from there it fell for ex-Hearts midfielder Holt to stab home from a couple of yards out, an error which would have had those on Logan’s side saying “told you so”.
The timing of his strike was a body blow for Hibs. What had seemed a comfortable lead was now very much less so, the interval, however, giving them the chance to clear their heads and gather their thoughts.
And they certainly seemed to have done that when Gunnarsson restored their two-goal advantage in the 58th minute. McGinn’s deep hanging corner was nodded back across the area where Tavernier’s succeeded only in knocking it into the path of the Norwegian, who wasted no time in lashing it home.
Logan may have been confined to the bench, but he was given a reception to match that which had welcomed each of Hibs’ goals as he emerged to warm up along with fellow substitutes Kevin Thomson and Chris Dagnall just as Stokes almost added a fourth for Hibs.
Wilson’s trip on Cummings 25 yards out was dead centre and an invitation too inviting for the Republic of Ireland striker to resist. He hammered in a tremendous shot which brought an equally good save from Forderingham to keep Rangers’ interest in the match alive.
Lewis Stevenson had done a pretty good job on Tavernier, limiting the threat from his forward runs but, for once, the Rangers right back got in behind him, firing in a low cross which Oxley took at his near post as the clock more and more became Hibs’ ally.
The minutes, though, would have been ticking away all too slowly for those in the Hibs dug-out as Rangers desperately sought the goal that would bring them right back into it, Hanlon smuggling away a dangerous low cross from Dean Shiels.
And the Ibrox men got it with five minutes remaining, McKay hammering a shot high into the net from range reminiscent of his strike against Celtic last Sunday but Oxley had plenty of time to see it, raising a question mark against his positioning.
But, as the game moved into added-on time, the goalkeeper reacted to drop on a Holt shot before rising above everyone to confidently clutch the ball as referee Kevin Clancy sounded the final whistle.
Hibs: Oxley; Gunnarsson, McGregor, Hanlon; Gray, Fyvie, Bartley, McGinn, Stevenson; Cummings (Keatings 77), Stokes. Unused subs: Logan, Henderson, Boyle, Thomson.
Rangers: Foderingham; Tavernier, Kiernan, Wilson, Wallace; Ball (Zelalem 61); O’Halloran (King 61), Halliday, Holt, McKay, Miller (Shiels 77). Unused subs: McCrorie, Burt, Law, Clark.
Referee: K Clancy