Hibs turn the tide on Aberdeen

Ben Williams pulls off a great save to deny Niall McGinn from the penalty spot early in the game
Ben Williams pulls off a great save to deny Niall McGinn from the penalty spot early in the game
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Hibs made it four games 
without defeat as they remain unbeaten in 2013, but the 
Easter Road outfit were 
perhaps fortunate to emerge with a point from Pittodrie as they were forced into a 
backs-to-the wall performance for large parts of the match.

Pat Fenlon’s side came under relentless pressure as the Dons pounded forward in search of a win which would have taken them above the Capital side in the SPL table but were unable to crack Hibs’ resistance. While the Dons would naturally feel aggrieved at losing out on a third win of the season against the Edinburgh outfit, Fenlon’s players deserve credit for the way in which they negotiated 90 tricky minutes unscathed.

Rarely were Hibs seen as an attacking force as they were engulfed in a red tide but rather than sink they kept their heads above water, thanks in no small part to a stunning penalty save from goalkeeper Ben Williams in the opening minutes.

Faced with the Dons’ top scorer Niall McGinn, Williams threw himself across his goal to push the ex-Celtic star’s 
spot-kick aside, the importance of that save became clearer with every passing minute, the Dons dominating while Hibs 
were rarely seen as a threat in attack.

Hibs made a nervous start and survived a penalty claim within two minutes, Peter Pawlett 
going down under the challenge of Tim Clancy. But referee Craig Thomson, never the favourite referee of the Easter Road support, waved away the claims of a player who had won his side a spot-kick at this venue last season only to be hit with a two-match ban for diving.

The referee on that occasion was Thomson – who also had a red card he dished out to Pawlett in that match rescinded – and this time round he decided the Dons youngster was guilty of “simulation”, flashing a yellow card in his direction much to the home crowd’s chagrin.

There was no doubt in Thomson’s mind eight minutes later, though, when Jonny Hayes had his heels clipped by Clancy as he wriggled his way along the bye-line towards Williams’ goal. It was Aberdeen’s first penalty of the season and there was little surprise as McGinn, scorer of 16 goals already this season, stepped up to take it with Scott Vernon, who usually takes on such duties relegated to the bench.

Williams brilliantly threw himself to his right to push the ball aside, his third penalty save of the season. The former Colchester United star said: “That’s three saved, one over the bar and one against which went in so in terms of penalties that’s quite good although I am not happy we keep conceding them.

“By saving it I have done my job.”

Hibs boss Fenlon admitted he was again disappointed to see his side slow out of the blocks, a failing which once more he insisted had to be eradicated and one which has all too often seen the Easter Road side make life tough for themselves.

Accepting Aberdeen were the better side with the better chances, he said: “We had to dig in. We didn’t play well but we have picked up a point and a clean sheet which is positive. The second half was better than the first, but we have been saying that for a few weeks now.”

A David Wotherspoon run ending with a shot which Dons goalkeeper Jamie Langfield turned round the post was all Hibs had to offer in an attacking sense in those opening 45 minutes.

It was a brief respite for Pat Fenlon’s side which had begun in a 4-5-1 formation, without Honduran midfielder Jorge Claros as his future remains clouded in uncertainty despite his parent club Motagua declaring a deal to extend his loan deal has been struck, but with top scorer Leigh Griffiths wide on the right while Finnish veteran Shefki Kuqi spearheaded the attack as he started his first SPL match since arriving in Edinburgh last summer.

Hibs continually found themselves stretched by Pawlett and Hayes on the flanks testing Clancy and McGivern but for all the possession they’d enjoyed, Craig Brown’s players managed to engineer just one half-chance from open play, McGinn taking Pawlett’s pass only to be shepherded wide by Clancy and unable to get his shot on target.

The Pittodrie side were also over-elaborate and wasteful, Gavin Rae, Stephen Hughes and McGinn all supplying low crosses into the area only to find team-mates indulging in “step-overs”, leaving the ball for imagined help coming in behind while Pawlett should have done better than power Joe Shaughnessy’s header back across goal over from a good position.

Hibs would have been thankful to hear the half-time whistle, McGinn drifting a free-kick from 25 yards over before Clark Robertson blazed the ball high above Williams’ crossbar after the goalkeeper had punched a Pawlett cross into his path.

Aberdeen’s makeshift partnership of Isaac Osbourne and Mark Reynolds had enjoyed a comfortable opening 45 minutes in which they’d hardly been forced to break sweat but Fenlon had put the interval to good use, adjusting his formation to bring Griffiths into a more central position.

And it almost paid immediate dividends, Kuqi slipping the ball through for his team-mate to chase, Griffiths losing out by half a yard as Langfield came sliding out to take it.

Again, though, it called no more than a temporary halt to the traffic heading towards Williams although Hibs, as was the case against Dundee last week, improved in the second half without asking enough questions of the home side.

Instead, Gary Deegan and Tom Taiwo presented dogged resistance in the middle of the park as they attempted to turn the red tide while skipper James McPake and Paul Hanlon were forced, on numerous occasions, to adopt a safety-first approach as the pressure mounted on the Edinburgh side.

Aberdeen continued to pound away but were unable to find what would have been a deserved breakthrough as they sought that win which would lift them into fourth place in the SPL table, Hayes turning to curl a shot wide, McGinn doing likewise with a free-kick before then nodding in a header which was never going to beat Williams.

The Hibs goalkeeper said: “We were under pressure but I didn’t think there were too many clear-cut chances in the game. It was important we kept a clean sheet having not played well.”

While there was clear frustration among the home fans, for Dons boss Craig Brown, while happy with his side’s performance, it was a familiar story. He said: “That was an example of so many games we have had here. Off the top of my head that’s our fourth 0-0 result.

“Earlier in the season we drew with Ross County, St Mirren and Hearts and each time, I felt, we’d dominated the game. We need to be more clinical in front of goal, it’s as simple as that.”

Plenty for both managers to ponder before these two sides do it all again at Easter Road on Sunday as they clash in the William Hill Scottish Cup, a repeat of last season’s semi-final which Hibs won 2-1, a scoreline for which both Fenlon and Brown would happily settle for.