Hibs final word: Huge credit due to Jack Ross and his team as they negotiate first part of acid tests with 2-2 Rangers draw

Hibs can head to Celtic Park with spring in step after containing other half of Old Firm

By Mark Atkinson
Monday, 21st September 2020, 7:30 am
Hibs defender Ryan Porteous dealt well with the pesky Rangers striker Alfredo Morelos.
Hibs defender Ryan Porteous dealt well with the pesky Rangers striker Alfredo Morelos.

When the Premiership fixtures were released back in July, two games leapt off the page as the acid tests of Hibs’ credentials.

Facing both halves of the Old Firm in the space of a week is always a daunting task, but Hibs negotiated the first part of their Glasgow challenge successfully yesterday with a highly-credible 2-2 draw at home to Rangers.

Their next match, on paper, is harder, with a trip along the M8 to take on Celtic next Sunday, but the way they performed and the resilience they showed against Rangers stands them in good stead.

Remember, this was a Rangers team that rocked up at Easter Road having not conceded a goal this season, armed with a dangerous arsenal of attackers whose movement and potency are of the highest calibre in this country. Hibs were able to breach their defences twice and while they could not keep their own door shut, they made sure two goals and a point were the most Steven Gerrard’s team would get.

Hibs, of course, have had a fine season up until this encounter. Five wins, a draw and one solitary defeat by Aberdeen, when their preparations were hampered by Alex Gogic’s “false-positive” Covid-19 test. But while the plaudits have rightly come for Jack Ross’ outfit, beating St Mirren, St Johnstone, Kilmarnock, Dundee United and Livingston is largely expected of them, even if that’s easier said than done. The stiffer examination of a team’s robustness comes when the top dogs are your opponents.

Ross was right when he said, pre-match, that this clash would not define the season. However, this 2-2 draw shows how far Hibs have come under his stewardship. His team functioned seamlessly as a unit, with the flexibility to switch formations during the match. They always carried a threat in attack and while the concession of two strikes suggests that there were defensive anomalies, Hibs actually dealt with the constant trickery, movement and pace of Ryan Kent, Ianis Hagi, James Tavernier, Borna Barisic and Alfredo Morelos well. Rangers would’ve doubled their tally against lesser opponents. While Hibs could still do with more quality and options, particularly midfield and in the final third, they are in a very good place.

As always against the Old Firm, you need big performances from individuals. Step forward goalkeeper Ofir Marciano, who raised his already impressive levels this season up a notch. He had made good parries from Scott Arfield and Ryan Kent before he produced one of the finest double-saves at Easter Road for many a year, blocking Arfield at close range and then flinging up and arm while grounded to beat away the Canadian's second goal-bound effort. The 30-year-old Israeli is at the peak of his powers right now.

Martin Boyle laid on two assists with pinpoint deliveries to, firstly, Drey Wright for the opening goal and then Christian Doidge on 72 minutes to grab the hosts’ equaliser. His pace was a constant pest to Rangers, but the dexterity he showed in fulfilling at first a more defensive wing-back role and then an orthodox winger’s berth shows the maturity and quality of his game.

Wright was handed a start in place of ineligible Rangers loanee Jamie Murphy and impressed. Ross is a big fan of the former St Johnstone player’s versatility, but his last two starts, in attacking midfield and as a shadow striker, imply that he can hold down a more permanent role in a central area. Hibs need goals to come from their midfield to supplement strikers Christian Doidge and Kevin Nisbet and they may have found the right man to do so.

The renaissance of Joe Newell continued, with the suave midfielder again impressing with a range of pinpoint passes. Like last week at St Mirren, he showed energy to get into the final third of the pitch and he is clearly a man high on confidence. Ross deserves enormous credit for reviving the ex-Rotherham man’s Hibs career.

While Rangers created more clear-cut chances and had more of the ball, Hibs always appeared capable of hurting their guests. Keeping a front-two at all times, it meant that when Hibs did turn the ball over, they often isolated centre-backs Connor Goldson and Filip Helander as the Rangers full-backs like to bomb forward whenever possible. It meant we had two bona-fide attack-minded teams and an open, entertaining game.

While Gerrard lamented poor defending for Hibs’ goals, Ross will be pleased with them. Boyle’s cutback to Wright was so accurate for the opener, while Hibs’ second – albeit marginally offside – involved a piercing pass from Newell, a cute nutmeg of Tavernier by Boyle, followed by his wicked cross that Doidge judged impeccably to glance home with his head. Hibs are the first team this season to truly expose Rangers’ rearguard.

The resolve Hibs showed not to wilt when 2-1 down was just as impressive, though. Morelos’ expert finish levelled the scores at one-a-piece in first-half stoppage time and Rangers grew from that, starting the second half strongly and grabbing a second through Arfield. At that point, with his team flooding forward, Gerrard probably expected his men to score again rather than concede.

Credit must go to Hibs’ defenders, in particular the once-again rock-solid Ryan Porteous, who was unruffled by the irritating Morelos, but also Ross, who realised that young defender Josh Doig was being mercilessly targeted down Hibs’ left. The decision to replace Doig with Lewis Stevenson and revert to a back-four was a sage bit of management.

All of this – and possibly more – will be needed again when Hibs play the champions in their own den. What we saw here, however, is more than ample evidence that this Hibs team, with 17 points already on the board before the clocks change, won’t be fazed by the trip to Celtic Park next weekend.