Why Hibs' hopes of clinching third will have to wait as Ryan Porteous' error gifts St Johnstone slim advantage
This was an opportunity lost for Hibs – but it doesn't need to be a calamity.
The last time they finished a league campaign as best of the rest, the contest with Aberdeen went to the wire and was, ultimately, decided on goal difference. After this outcome, a repeat remains a viable possibility.
Hibs had gone into this match against St Johnston well aware that they could wrap up third place. They simply had to better Aberdeen’s result against Livingston.
As it turned out, that would be impossible as the Pittodrie side took all three points from their fixture, but the fact that Hibs squandered all three at Easter Road means that the gap between the pair has been squeezed to three points, albeit the Leith outfit have the relative comfort of a superior goal difference.
It was little wonder that capital manager Jack Ross cut a frustrated figure on the sidelines.
In recent weeks, his players have been in decent form and vocal in their determination to realise their ambitions in the final few matches of the season.
But, in a contest that really never caught fire, they fell below the standards they have demanded of themselves in the ongoing quest for glory.
Honest enough to admit that his team did not merit a victory, the Hibs gaffer was equally adamant that they did not deserve to lose either and but for a momentary lapse from defender Ryan Porteous at one end and a quality point-blank save from Saints goalkeeper Elliot Parish at the other, they wouldn’t have.
Hibs were forced to make changes with top scorer Kevin Nisbet out injured. But the recent goal return suggested they would still have enough firepower to trouble their guests. Martin Boyle pushed into a central strike berth alongside Christian Doidge and that gave Drey Wright his first start since early January but, arguably ring-rusty, he lacked the potency of the pacey and direct Australian forward on that flank and that contributed to the problem with supply.
It was a quiet start to the game for Hibs and for a St Johnstone side that had been heavily shuffled by manager Callum Davidson, who made seven changes from the line-up that dispatched Rangers from the Scottosh Cup.
Cautious, they each seemed to be waiting for the other to make a move. But even when the Perth side did and opened the scoring in the 22 minute, Hibs failed to mount an adequate response.
They did improve after the interval, no doubt with some strong words from their manager ringing in their ears, but the final killer ball was missing, as was the penetration, and with limited attacking options on the bench as they looked to improve on that, they will be happy to welcome Nisbet and experienced winger Jamie Murphy back into the ranks next week.
Where they were given the space to play their own game against Motherwell last weekend, they were forced to hurry passes, which were well read by the opponents. With that in mind everything needed to be slicker, and the passing crisper and movement sharper.
They managed that at times but nowhere near consistently enough, too often undone by taking one extra touch, one extra second to ponder options etc.
But if the forward play was more laboured and less incisive than has been the case of late, the defence also showed a critical moment of vulnerability as 22 year-old Scotland hopeful Porteous, having initially done well against Michael O’Halloran, played a sloppy pass/clearance from inside his own box to a grateful Glenn Middleton, in a central position, on the edge of the area, and the former Hibs loanee banged his shot past the helpless Ofir Marciano.
In this game, as has so often been the case with Hibs this season, the first goal was always likely to have a major say in how the result panned out.
Solid frontrunners, they have never lost in the league after taking the lead but they have only come from behind to win once.
Both scenarios have, of course, thrown up draws and Boyle looked to have levelled in the 36th minute when Wright fed a pass inside to Jackson Irvine and he whipped in an inviting cross for his fellow Socceroo to launch himself towards at the back post. But, stretching as he attempted to steer the delivery past Parish with the outside of his right boot, he was foiled by the stand-in Saints keeper who closed him down and, making himself big, blocked the effort.
But, in a match where one set of players were looking to cement third and the others were looking to enhance their chances of booking fifth spot in the hope that could yet reap a European reward, depending on how the Scottish Cup pans out, further genuine chances were not forthcoming for either as they snuffed eachother out.
Boyle did have the ball in the net in the 72nd minute, as he burst onto a defence-splitting Irvine pass but, in what, at first glance seemed a close call, the farside assistant referee had his flag up for offside before the shot left the Hibs striker’s boot.
A frustrated figure, Ross tried questioning the officials about certain decisions after the match but was rewarded with a yellow card rather than answers.
That was just salt in the wounds on a day Hibs will want to quickly put behind them as they turn their attention back to cup business next weekend, aware that everything they have been aiming for is still up for grabs, provided they can avoid any more off days.
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