Hibs’ promotion hopes are hanging in the balance after Alan Stubbs’ side crashed to defeat by Rangers, a ninth goal of the season for both Nicky Clark and Kenny Miller putting the Ibrox side in pole position to face Motherwell in the Premiership play-off final.
The Easter Road side have it all to do at home on Saturday although they will go into the match conscious of the fact from their own bitter experience at the end of last season – when they surrendered a two-goal lead to Hamilton – that all is not yet lost.
Rangers, however, will believe they have taken another significant step in their journey from the bottom tier of Scottish football to the top flight although Motherwell will obviously have a say in whether they actually do so.
For Hibs, though, everything will ride on the coming 90 minutes and, unless they can find the cutting edge they badly lacked in this match, they’ll find themselves consigned to another season of Championship football.
However, with 44 minutes gone, it was looking promising for Stubbs’ players, the game goalless until a flash of skill from Haris Vuckic caught them flat-footed, his dink finding Richard Foster, who supplied the perfect cross for Clark to sidefoot home.
And ex-Hibs striker Miller made life all the tougher for his old club as he slid the ball home for a Rangers second with 27 minutes remaining.
A tight, cautious affair was what had been predicted for this first leg of the Premiership play-off semi-final, the thought being that neither side would be too adventurous for fear of finding themselves at an insurmountable disadvantage ahead of Saturday’s return at Easter Road.
Having lost three times in a row to Stubbs’ side, Rangers had stifled Hibs on the last occasion they played, adopting a 3-5-2 formation and successfully suffocated the creative forces in the Capital outfit’s midfield by flooding that area.
It was a formula which worked for Stuart McCall, his side emerging with a 2-0 victory even if the second clinching goal was somewhat contentious.
The interim Rangers boss, however, decided against such a system this time round, matching up to Hibs with a diamond formation in the middle of the park when the pre-match belief had been that his side’s best chance against a team widely accepted to be the best footballing unit in the Championship would again to be standing on the toes of the likes of Scott Allan and Fraser Fyvie.
It made for an open match with play swinging from end to end, although neither side was able to conjure up an clear opening in the first 20 minutes or so, the home fans, who vastly outnumbered the 950 Hibs supporters tucked away in that corner between the Broomloan and Sandy Jardine Stands cranking up the decibels every time their team ventured forward but betraying an air of anxiety each time a pass went astray.
Hibs goalkeeper Mark Oxley, who found himself being pelted with paper “snowballs” every time he prepared to take a bye-kick, was the first to be called into action, confidently clutching a powerful low drive from Miller.
But it was Hibs who created the first real opening, Dominique Malonga, who was displaying an appetite for the game in stark contrast to his languid demeanour, slipping Marius Zaliukas before delivering an inviting cross which somehow eluded the left boot of Jason Cummings, scorer of three goals already this season against Rangers.
However, it was Rangers who enjoyed a greater percentage of possession in the first half, the clever runs of Miller ensuring he was always available for a pass while Vuckic, the on-loan Newcastle United player, teased a free-kick from Lewis Stevenson in a dangerous area only to send his shot off the defensive wall.
He may have been denied on that occasion, but the Slovenian proved pivotal in carving out the opening goal of the game a minute before the interval, his delightful ball over the top catching Hibs unawares and finding the overlapping Foster, who supplied the perfect cross for Clark to score from inside the six-yard box.
The opening ten to 15 minutes of the second half would be crucial for Stubbs’ players, the emphasis not so much on chasing an equaliser but ensuring Rangers didn’t add to their advantage and so give the Govan side the impetus to try to put the tie all but beyond them on the night.
Rangers sought to do exactly that, Vuckic drilling in a low shot which Oxley stopped and held at the second attempt but Hibs gave note that the game was far from beyond them as Malonga got his head to an Allan corner but only managed to steer it over before Fyvie fizzed the ball wide.
Hibs, though, found their promotion hopes further dented in the 63rd minute. Lee Wallace won an aerial duel at the edge of the visitors’ penalty area, sending the ball down towards both Clark and Miller but it was the veteran hitman, who did the damage to his old club, sliding his shot beyond Oxley and into the far corner of the net.
Despite having Malonga and Cummings, scorer of 36 goals between them in the regular season, Hibs lacked a cutting edge with Rangers goalkeeper Cammy Bell having little to deal with in the way of direct shots, both strikers skying difficult chances over.
McCall clearly felt it was a case of “job done,” at least on the night, replacing Clark with Steven Smith to leave Miller alone up front while Dean Shiels’ place went to Ian Black – better known for his destructive abilities in the middle of the park than his creative skills.
And when Kris Boyd did come on, it was a straight replacement for the 35-year-old Miller, who was clearly unhappy to find himself heading for the dug-out.
Hibs did enjoy a succession of corners, all of them taken by Allan, but there was no end product with those wearing the white change shirt unable to get their head to the vast majority of them.
A Cummings rocket which crashed off the head of Fyvie just summed up Hibs’ evening.