Ofir MARCIANO was still feeling twinges of pain from the rib injury he’d suffered on his last visit to Tynecastle but, the Hibs goalkeeper revealed, the giddy atmosphere of an Edinburgh derby provided the perfect painkiller as he made a surprise return to action against Hearts.
The Israeli internationalist had completed just 20 minutes of first-team action in more than two months, that coming as he made his comeback from knee surgery only to be crocked, ironically, at the Gorgie ground, a collision with team-mate Liam Fontaine seeing him make an early exit as Neil Lennon’s players crushed Bonnyrigg Rose 8-1 to set up a Scottish Cup clash with their Capital rivals.
Today the 26-year-old revealed he had yet to fully recover from the knock suffered that day, although the initial fear of a broken rib or two was quickly discounted. And he was determined to play through the pain in a bid to help his team-mates pull off a repeat of last season’s heroics in which Hibs defeated the Jambos in a replay at Easter Road following a 2-2 draw, a massive step towards smashing their cup hoodoo of 114 years.
Now there’s the distinct possibility of history repeating itself, Ian Cathro having to take his side across the city next Wednesday following the weekend stalemate in which Marciano played a massive part in ensuring the game ended goalless with an impressive save at the start of each half from Hearts strikers Esmael Goncalves and Bjorn Johnsen.
And, having sampled the white-hot cauldron of his first derby, Marciano admitted he can’t wait for next week’s re-run although, having received a bonus over the weekend with Hibs’ closest Championship rivals, Dundee United, being comprehensively beaten by Falkirk, he insisted the immediate focus must be on extending their lead at the top of the table to nine points when they face Raith Rovers at Stark’s Park on Saturday.
On a season-long loan from Israeli outfit Ashdod, Marciano said: “The derby is the kind of game I came here to play and I was delighted to have the opportunity to play in one. It was amazing. I have played in good atmospheres but I’d never played in a derby. You could see the rivalry. It was good to be involved.
“I thought our fans were amazing. I don’t have words to describe it. I’m happy for them. It’s a privilege to play for them.
“I think everyone was happy because we performed well. To be fair, it wasn’t a great game of football but it was a fight and everyone could see we fought. That’s the most important thing in these games and I think we won every battle.”
Marciano certainly won his in denying Goncalves and then Johnsen, his first stop coming within three minutes as he “stood big” to deny the former St Mirren hitman. Acknowledging the first goal can often prove to be pivotal in such encounters, he said: “I saw Goncalves get control of the ball and take it forward.
“I just tried to get as close as I could to him and opened my body. It was a decent shot but I had got close and managed to stop it. As a goalkeeper, you have key moments in the game when you have to do that sort of thing and I was happy I did.”
As Hearts hit Hibs with another whirlwind start to the second half, Marciano pulled off what was an even better save to deny Johnsen – a half-time substitute for the Jambos– as a shot from Goncalves was blocked, the ball spinning high into the air before falling at Johnsen’s feet.
Marciano admitted it was an instinctive stop, saying: “When I saw him get the ball I wasn’t in the best position so I tried to move my feet and I was able to save it with my leg before Darren McGregor pulled off a great block from the second shot” [from Jamie Walker].”
It was a big call in the first place from Hibs boss Neil Lennon to re-instate Marciano, but one which was fully vindicated not only by those saves but an assured 90 minutes from the goalkeeper who knew only the day before that he’d be pushed back into the fray.
Lennon said: “I looked at him on Saturday and I thought he looked great. It was a big game. He is an international goalkeeper and he showed his class. The one chance Hearts cut us open was Goncalves early on and Ofir has stood up brilliantly to that and made a great save.
“The one from Johnsen they have got a huge slice of luck with the ricochet and he has saved it again.”
Marciano added: “The gaffer asked me how I felt and I was happy that he trusted me. I’m not fully fit, I’m still feeling pain because the area is still damaged. It’s like having a dead leg but in the ribs. It’s not a nice injury. It was one that was very sore. I had painkillers before the game but in an atmosphere like that you forget everything. As a professional football player, you sometimes have to play through pain and I was happy the gaffer and staff gave me the confidence that I could play and I am happy to have repaid them for that.”
Marciano, however, admitted that collision with Fontaine had gone through his mind as he took up station before those 3582 fans in Tynecastle’s Roseburn Stand, the very same goal where the damage had been done last month.
He said: “It was my first game after my knee injury and it was very frustrating to be injured again but I worked hard to get fit again as soon as possible. What happened last time did flash through my mind but as a professional football player you have to get over things. I didn’t feel anything. I just focused on the ball.
“That’s what goalkeepers have to do, especially in these sort of matches. There’s no time to think about anything else and I am happy the game went well.”
Now Marciano can’t wait to be facing Hearts again, this time in front of a 20,400 sell-out crowd at Easter Road. Asked if Hibs could repeat last season’s victory, he said: “You never know but in football you have to work hard to make it happen.
“I’m really looking forward to another Edinburgh derby, this time at home, but we’ve done nothing yet. We have another game and, as everyone knows, this is our cup and we want to defend it, we want to hold on to it as long as we can.
“But promotion is the key target. We have to concentrate on getting the three points against Raith on Saturday and increasing our lead at the top of the table.
“Only then can we start thinking about another match with Hearts.”