Hibs’ fading Europa League hopes finally evaporated as Paul Heckingbottom suffered his first Premiership defeat as the Easter Road side went down to Rangers for the first time this season.
A first-half goal from the ageless Jermaine Defoe was enough to clinch victory for the Ibrox outfit and to leave Hibs out of reach of both Aberdeen and Kilmarnock in joint-third place.
There was an explosive ending to the match Rangers goalkeeper Allan McGregor was sensationally sent off, referee Bobby Madden ruling he’d deliberately kicked Hibs striker Marc McNulty in the back as he made a clearance,
A clearly furious McGregor remonstrated long and hard with the official and with Rangers boss Steven Gerrard having used all three substitutions, midfielder Ross McCrorie had to take over the gloves as the match moved into added on time.
The home support was left raging, but Hibs were unable to capitalise and, indeed, it took a fantastic one-handed save from goalkeeper Ofir Marciano to prevent Alfredo Morelos doubling Rangers lead six minutes into stoppage time.
Heckingbottom had promised his side would “go for it”, Hibs left with no other option if they were to fulfil that faint hope of catching either the Dons or Killie but, in the end, they managed just one shot on target in the entire match.
With Killie and the Dons to come before the curtain comes down, aiming to wrestle three points from this one was, at least, something to cling to, a trio of draws against Rangers this season and two wins at Ibrox last year certainly showed that victory wasn’t beyond them.
Nevertheless, it remained a tough proposition against an Ibrox side secure in second place and seemingly playing with a freedom as evidenced by four straight wins with 13 goals scored and just one conceded in recent weeks.
They had done so in the absence of leading scorer Morelos as he paid the penalty for his ill-discipline with a lengthy ban, the fiery Colombian starting this one of the bench.
But in Defoe, Hibs’ central defenders Darren McGregor and Paul Hanlon faced an entirely different frontman than Hearts Uche Ikpeazu in last week’s Edinburgh derby.
That was demonstrated twice in the opening minutes, the veteran English striker’s darting run meeting James Tavenier’s low cross to prod the ball straight at Marciano before an exquisite turn threatened to open up the visiting defence, Defoe finding himself cramped for space at the vital moment.
With Ryan Gauld given a free role in behind striker McNulty as he made a first appearance in three months, Hibs did enjoy some neat periods of possession without causing Gerrard’s men too many problems.
Likewise, Marciano hadn’t been over-troubled despite Rangers seeing most of the ball, but Hibs No.1 had to get down sharply to block a low shot from Ryan Jack as it came at him through a forest of legs, the Israeli internationalist grateful that Defoe could do no more than tamely direct the rebound into his arms.
He might have been disappointed in that instance, but Defoe was much happier a couple of minutes later, Jack playing the ball to the unmarked Steven Davis who spotted his team-mate’s run and delivered the perfect pass to leave him with the easy task of knocking it beyond Marciano.
Given his stated intent, Heckingbottom would have been disappointed to see the hour-mark approach with his side yet to register a shot on target, Hibs knocking the ball about without much real purpose and Rangers content to let them do so.
The Hibs head coach recognised that lack of drive, Flo Kamberi replacing Gauld - who’d become only the 13th player to earn a starting berth in Heckingbottom’s 11 league matches to date - to add a bit of muscle alongside McNulty, while Thomas Agyepong came on for Daryl Horgan in a bid to add some zip to their play.
As the minutes ticked by the game looked more and more like one of those end-of-season, nothing-at-stake affairs, the home fans becoming evermore exasperated not to see their side turn their dominance into further goals.
Gerrard appeared to sense that unease, the replacement of Defoe with Morelos 16 minutes from time probably designed to lift the support while giving his temperamental hitman the chance to atone for his latest enforced absence.
Morelos did have the ball in the net four minutes from time but was clearly offside while it took the, up until then, under-employed McGregor in the home goal to deny Kamberi a late equaliser, the goalkeeper pulling off a tremendous stop to deny the Swiss hitman.
McGregor then went from saint to sinner with that crazy kick out at McNulty with the game already won, a stupid and indefensibcle act which will rule him out of Rangers final two games of the season.
For Hibs, their final two matches have little at stake other than securing fifth place from city rivals Hearts, who are three points behind them in sixth place with a worse goal difference.
Rangers: A McGregor, Tavernier, Goldson, Katic, Flanagan, Kamara, Jack, Davis, Arfield, Defoe, Kent.
Hibs: Marciano, Gray, D McGregor, Hanlon, Stevenson, Milligan, Mallan, Omeonga, Gauld, Horgan, McNulty.