So, after all the hand-wringing and delay in who would play who where and when, the SPFL find themselves exactly in the position they didn’t want – Celtic facing Rangers on the day when they’re likely to clinch a seventh Premiership title.
Given the authorities’ desperation to avoid such a scenario it looked to many supporters that Hibs had been offered up as some sort of sacrificial lamb, the obvious belief being Brendan Rodgers’ side would pitch up in Edinburgh and get the job done right away and leave everyone to breathe easily.
However, whoever finally drew up the post-split fixtures appears to have overlooked one simple fact, that while Neil Lennon’s players hadn’t beaten Celtic in four previous encounters this season they had scored twice on no less than three occasions against them, held them to two draws and ran them pretty close in the other matches.
Lennon insisted he had no issue with the way the top-six programme had emerged but, he admitted, the Capital side and their record since the turn of the year had appeared to have been somewhat overlooked.
“No-one has been talking about us,” he claimed. “It’s all been about Kilmarnock and the teams not doing so well. We’ve largely been under the radar but it’s one defeat in 16 and that was away to Celtic, which is never easy.”
The Hibs boss insisted his players had to be at the top of their game to put Celtic’s title party on hold until, at least, they face their Old Firm rivals on their own patch this weekend, and even he must have been slightly taken aback by the performance they put in from first minute to last.
Darren McGregor failing a late fitness test on a hamstring problem added to Lennon’s pre-match concerns, Hibs already without the suspended Marvin Bartley and Scott Allan, on loan from Celtic, while striker Jamie Maclaren was ordered to stay away from the team hotel the night before through illness.
Maclaren, however, pulled himself out of his sick bed to take his place in a side which also boasted Danny Swanson, starting his first match of the year, and the shifts those two put in probably epitomised the spirit currently running through Hibs.
Playmaker Swanson was handed the role of preventing Celtic skipper Scott Brown controlling play and he probably surprised the former Scotland captain with his tenacity, snapping away at his heels and never giving him a moment’s peace until he was forced off late in the game through injury.
Lennon said: “We didn’t want Browny dictating the game, you have to go and get in his face and take the ball off him. Too many people dance around him and don’t get close. We didn’t want that.
“We had to press aggressively within the laws of the game and I thought we did that pretty well.”
Lennon recalled his own famous victory as Celtic boss over Barcelona and likened it to this victory which very much keeps Hibs in the hunt for second place.
He said: “If you mark space you are knackered. You have to mark men, especially against these guys. If you drop off they change runs and they will cut you to ribbons. We asked them to go man for man.
“We even left [Efe] Ambrose one-v-one with [Leigh] Griffiths at times. We gambled a little bit there and it worked. On another day, someone could slip and they are in. But we wanted to be positive.”
Lennon had made it clear beforehand that his previous loyalties and the ties he still enjoys with Celtic wouldn’t deflect from the task in hand and, while he conceded he didn’t take any enjoyment out of beating them, he said: “You have to be professional.
“This is my job here now and I am really enjoying what I am doing, these players, the atmosphere and the environment I am working in. Sometimes it does not get much better than that.”
Hibs made it clear from the off that they weren’t simply going to be unwanted guests in their own home as the Celtic fans began their celebrations well before kick-off, Swiss striker Flo Kamberi forcing former Hearts goalkeeper Craig Gordon into a smart save before powering a header over.
Their ambition was rewarded in the 24th minute when Lewis Stevenson’s sharp interception gave him the space to deliver an inch-perfect cross for Maclaren to knock home at the back post.
The Australian striker said: “I didn’t travel to the hotel with the team but I was in touch with the staff saying ‘Don’t rule me out, I really want to play’.
An early-morning stroll convinced Maclaren that, although he didn’t have any energy, he could play, promising Lennon he’d give him all he could for as long as he could, adding: “I was honest with him. He didn’t want me to let myself or my team-mates down.
“He gave me trust and I gave it back. When I scored the adrenaline kicked in but I had nothing left after 70 minutes.”
Hibs might have been two up when Swanson’s corner broke off Dedryck Boyata and was netbound until Gordon got down to save before Paul Hanlon’s glancing header from John McGinn’s free-kick crept inches wide.
As to be expected, Celtic did have chances, albeit fewer than they might have anticipated, Hibs goalkeeper Ofir Marciano twice pulling off sharp saves from Tom Rogic but, just as everyone was feeling the home side might pay for not having turned their superiority into a second goal, it came.
Lithuanian midfielder Vykintas Slivka, who has endured an indifferent first season in Scotland, had taken over from the tiring Maclaren and was in the right place to meet an inviting cross from Kamberi to glance the ball beyond Gordon.
It turned out to be the winner, as had his only previous goal in a green-and-white shirt – at Ibrox away back in August – with Odsonne Edouard trimming the lead with three minutes to go. The nerves kicked in, not helped by the fourth official’s board announcing five more in added-on time.
Lennon, though, insisted his players were in no way left hanging on, saying: “I was very proud of them. I thought we were outstanding and we needed to be playing the best team in the country by a considerable distance. But I feel we deserved the win. I thought we matched them all over the pitch, the intensity [we had]. They probably haven’t played like that or had to play like that before but that’s what we asked them to do.
“We know they are capable of it and they will get a huge shot in the arm. It puts pressure on the teams around us and that’s all we can ask.”