Talking point: Why Uche Ikpeazu’s goal has probably killed off Hibs’ Euro bid
When the full-time whistle sounded at Easter Road, some Hibs players sunk to the ground as a sense of deflation gripped the home support.
Having been on top for the majority of the second half, and on course for a second Edinburgh derby win in succession that would have taken them within two points of Kilmarnock, Uche Ikpeazu’s late equaliser for Hearts came as something of a sucker punch to Paul Heckingbottom’s team.
While there was an immediate feeling of frustration at being denied the chance to lord it over their city rivals for the second time in just three weeks, the more pertinent source of despair came from a realisation that the Tynecastle side’s unlikely late fightback had left Hibs’ hopes of sneaking into Europe hanging by a thread. Had they held on to win, they would have had full control of their own destiny - in terms of the battle for fourth place - going into the last three games, with a potentially pivotal trip to Kilmarnock to come on the penultimate weekend of the campaign.
Instead, although they have made up a point on the Ayrshire side this weekend, they still have a four-point margin to overcome in the closing three matches if they are to achieve their stated aim of trying to catch the team immediately above them, having already overtaken Motherwell, St Johnstone and Hearts since Paul Heckingbottom took charge in February. Given that Hibs face Rangers away, Killie away and Aberdeen at home, it is hard to imagine them outperforming Steve Clarke’s team by the required four points. Killie visit Hearts, and then finish with home games against Hibs and Rangers. While Hibs are now unbeaten in their last ten matches, they have won only one of their last four and have had trouble scoring goals in recent weeks, Daryl Horgan’s derby contributions apart. Even if they can somehow collect what looks an extremely ambitious target of seven points from their last three games, they would still be reliant on Kilmarnock not winning any more games.
In short, a return to Europe now looks a long shot. Not that finishing fifth would represent a failure for Heckingbottom’s Hibs by any stretch. Indeed it is a sign of the progress made under the Yorkshireman over the past two and a half months that they are even in with an outside chance of making the top four with three games left. When Heckingbottom took over in February, the only Edinburgh side deemed to be in contention for Europe was Hearts. As things stand, Hibs are three points ahead of their city rivals with a superior goal difference.
Although they are entitled to lament a missed opportunity by not seeing out victory in the Edinburgh derby, any Hibs fan would have gladly settled for this scenario if offered it at the start of February. The challenge now for Heckingbottom’s team is to try and extend their ten-game unbeaten run to the end of the season, see off the lingering challenge of Hearts and then hope a Kilmarnock collapse paves the way for a blindside run for fourth place.