Hibs-Celtic final word: Glimmers of promise undermined by softness when put under any pressure
Anthony Brown looks back on Hibs' defeat in Saturday's Betfred Cup semi-final
After ten league games in a row without victory, the last thing Hibs manager Paul Heckingbottom needed was a five-goal blitzing in a showpiece match at Hampden.
Saturday’s 5-2 Betfred Cup semi-final demolition by rampant Celtic did nothing to ease the Yorkshireman’s increasingly grim predicament. It remains to be seen how much longer he will be given to spark an upturn, but the majority of the Easter Road support appear to have completely given up on the possibility that things will get any better under Heckingbottom.
The 7500 who travelled to the national stadium did so more in hope than expectation. As has been the case in most of Hibs’ recent matches, there were some glimmers of promise, but ultimately any prospect of an upset was undermined by a softness when placed under genuine pressure. In mitigation, Celtic produced a performance described by manager Neil Lennon afterwards as “breathtaking”. “We had some good bits in the game but we let ourselves down with some sloppy play,” said Hibs centre-back Adam Jackson, who replaced the suspended Ryan Porteous as he made his first start since suffering concussion in the 1-1 draw with Celtic in September.
From the moment Celtic edged in front through Mohamed Elyounoussi’s 17th-minute header, the Premiership leaders always had the initiative. While Hibs had got away with one when Paul Hanlon was fortunate not to concede a penalty for handball shortly before the opening goal, they found themselves the victims of an errant call from the officials as Celtic doubled their lead through a tap-in from Callum McGregor in the 21st minute despite replays showing that Odsonne Edouard was marginally offside when running on to Christopher Jullien’s pass.
Hibs looked dead and buried for a spell – and their supporters weren’t slow to voice their discontent in the form of regular bouts of booing whenever Celtic, with their tails up, went close to adding to their advantage. Completely against the run of play, however, Hibs got themselves back into it when Melker Hallberg kept his cool to slot past the exposed Fraser Forster from around 12 yards out after Boli Bolingoli, while trying to challenge Christian Doidge on the edge of the box, inadvertently touched the ball back into the path of the grateful Swede.
Hibs, who had fought back from two goals down to draw 2-2 with Livingston in the Premiership last Wednesday, surely had to stay within touching distance of Celtic until half-time if they were to have a chance of completing another comeback. They were unable to do this, however, as Edouard breezed past Tom James too easily on the left and sent an inviting delivery across the face of goal for Elyounoussi, who got in between Jackson and Lewis Stevenson to knock the ball into the net from a couple of yards out in the 43rd minute. “The first half pretty much killed the game for us going in 3-1 down,” admitted Jackson.
Heckingbottom took off the ineffective midfielder Josh Vela and replaced him with striker Florian Kamberi for the start of the second half, but Celtic continued to play with menace and purpose. Both Elyounoussi and Forrest struck the woodwork before they extended their lead in the 56th minute. This time goalkeeper Chris Maxwell was at fault as he spilled Elyounoussi’s corner, albeit under pressure from Jullien, allowing Scott Brown to volley home from close range. This error from the Welshman added fuel to the fire of those Hibs fans who believe Heckingbottom was wrong to have dropped the popular Ofir Marciano from the starting line-up back in September.
With more than half an hour remaining, things could have become significantly messier for Hibs. Instead, they summoned some much-needed resistance and regained a modicum of pride with a period of spirited play, led by Kamberi, who looked in the mood to make things happen.
Within two minutes of Celtic going 4-1 up, the Swiss glanced in a superb header from James’ cross. Hibs, who spent much of the second half playing 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond, continued to rally and Stevie Mallan sent a half-volley narrowly over the bar from the edge of the box before Doidge slid in and just failed to connect with a tantalising delivery from Kamberi.
Celtic always had Hibs at arm’s length, however, and they sealed their victory in the last minute when Brown burst into the box and forced home the rebound after his initial attempt had been well saved by Maxwell.
“If we took our chances at 4-2, we might have had a chance of getting back into it,” said Jackson, ruefully. “We were never truly out of it until the fifth went in. We kept plugging away and we kept getting up the pitch but we just weren’t clinical enough in both boxes.”
This concerning trend of lacking potency in attack and leaking too many goals over a sustained period of time has led Heckingbottom to a position whereby it now genuinely feels like any game could prove to be his last.
Hibs (4-2-3-1): Maxwell; James, Jackson, Hanlon, Stevenson; Hallberg, Vela (Kamberi 46); Mallan, Allan, Horgan (Slivka 68); Doidge (Boyle 76). Unused subs: Marciano, Naismith, Newell, Whittaker.
Celtic (4-2-3-1): Forster; Frimpong, Ajer, Jullien, Bolingoli (Hayes 46); Brown, McGregor; Forrest (Abd Elhamed 67), Rogic (Christie 79), Elyounoussi; Edouard. Unused subs: Gordon, Bitton, Johnston, Ntcham.