Morton 0, Hibs 1: Anthony Stokes strikes to earn win
Anthony Stokes ensured Hibs kept pace with Rangers at the top of the Championship table, the on-loan Celtic striker scoring for the second game in succession to give the Easter Road side the narrowest of victories over Morton.
Although his side were some way off the enthralling display they had produced in beating St Johnstone in the League Cup semi-finals last weekend, head coach Alan Stubbs would have been happy enough to win the second of a testing schedule of three matches in eight days which culminates in Sunday’s Scottish Cup clash with Hearts.
Given Rangers had taken advantage of Hibs’ attention being on the League Cup to extend their advantage at the top of the Championship to eight points – albeit with a game more played – it was imperative Hibs didn’t slip up in this one.
The test, though, for Stubbs’ side was not only to put the elation of beating Saints to ensure a Hampden outing next month but to ignore the impending derby clash with Hearts back at Tynecastle on Sunday and to concentrate totally on taking the three points to keep as close as possible to the Ibrox outfit.
Having admitted there would have been players disappointed to have not started the semi-final three days previously but promising every member of his squad would be utilised as Hibs strive to continue their interest on three fronts, Stubbs made four changes to the side for this Cappielow encounter.
Stokes, having scored in his cameo appearance as he began his second spell in Edinburgh, started for the first time since his return having missed out at the weekend with a back strain while Norwegian defender Niklas Gunnarsson also made a first start.
Stokes replaced top scorer Jason Cummings while James Keatings lined up alongside him up front in place of Chris Dagnall. Gunnarson stepped in at right back for captain David Gray and Darren McGregor took over in central defence from Paul Hanlon.
With such a hectic and important run of matches in the space of just eight days, Stubbs’ eagerness to give key players a bit of a breather was understandable, but Hanlon’s day of rest lasted just 11 minutes, the centre half getting the call after Liam Fontaine suffered what appeared to be a strain to his left thigh.
Another heavy shower just prior to kick-off not only soaked those Hibs fans brave enough to endure the uncovered pleasure of the “Wee Dublin End” but ensured the surface remained slick, something Hibs set about trying to put to good use.
There was a tempo about their early play, a determination to play at pace in a bid to make an early breakthrough but, as plenty of visitors to Greenock have discovered, Jim Duffy’s troops are a well-organised unit, happy to drop off and allow their opponents possession in areas where it didn’t really matter but ready to choke space by getting plenty of numbers behind the ball whenever a threat appeared imminent.
Morton, though, weren’t simply about sitting in and trying to hold on to a point, the strong running of frontman Denny Johnstone, ably supported by Declan McManus, allowing them to get up the park, the danger for Hibs being that they’d do so when the Capital club had over-loaded in attack.
It was, however, again a matter of patience for Stubbs’ players, to continue to play in the manner the fans’ are once again enjoying, retaining the belief that all that was needed was one of those passes which had infuriatingly gone astray would suddenly find its intended target.
And that was the case just two minutes from the interval when Liam Henderson’s perfectly-flighted cross from the left found Keatings in space, the striker getting plenty of power on his header but directing it straight at goalkeeper Derek Gaston who, nevertheless, displayed sharp reflexes to push the ball over.
Mark Oxley, on the other hand. didn’t have a save to make in the opening 45, his only moment of concern coming as Keatings’ poor pass tempted team-mate Dylan McGeouch into an illegal challenge on Ross Forbes just 20 yards out, But Joe McKee wasted the chance to test the goalkeeper, firing the resulting free-kick high over the bar.
News that Andy Halliday had put Rangers one up at Raith Rovers and, as things stood, stretched the gap between Hibs and the Glasgow club to ten points, wasn’t what the travelling support needed as they mulled over a half which had seen their side enjoy a lot of the ball but ultimately unable to produce that clarity of thought or surety of touch in and around the area.
All those half-time deliberations counted for little, however, as Stokes fired Hibs ahead within two minutes of the restart.
Morton defender Lee Kilday was culpable, gifting possession to John McGinn 30 yards out. He wasted no time in sliding it inside to the unmarked Stokes, who appeared to have wasted the chance with a poor first touch on the 18-yard line but still had the presence of mind to toe-poke it beyond Gaston and into the far corner of the net.
Stokes almost had a second, playing a neat one-two with Keatings only to fire wide before Johnstone reminded Hibs that Morton were far from a spent force, rising to meet Connor Pepper’s cross to send in a header reminiscent of Joe Shaugnessy’s equaliser for St Johnstone at the weekend. This time Oxley was grateful to see it loop over his bar rather than finding the top corner.
It was a warning, though, to Hibs that although Oxley still hadn’t had his fingers warmed they still needed a second goal to feel a little more comfortable, McGinn’s drive from 25 yards looking initially promising but ultimately carrying a little too much loft.
Alarmingly for the Edinburgh outfit, Morton were beginning to dictate play with some 25 minutes left to play – too long, for their supporters’ nerves, to begin thinking of settling for that one-goal lead although the home fans were not slow in voicing their disappointment that Duffy’s players weren’t able to make better use of the possession they were enjoying.
With Keatings again very much on the periphery, Stokes remained Hibs’ main threat as he demonstrated by cutting in from that wide left role he seems to prefer these days to unleash a shot which Gaston held to his chest as he did, with a little less ease, as Gunnarsson’s low cross was deflected towards his near post.
Stokes was replaced by Dagnall with 14 minutes left, but the Irishman had done enough to ensure Hibs kept tabs with Rangers – 1-0 winners at Raith – at the top.
Morton (4-4-1-1): Gaston; Pepper, Kilday, O’Ware, Russell; McCluskey (Quitongo 85), McKee, Forbes (Tidser 81), Barr (Samuel 76); McManus, Johnstone. Unused subs: Lamie, Miller, Scullion, McGowan.
Hibs (4-1-3-2): Oxley; Gunnarsson (Gray 83), McGregor, Fontaine (Hanlon 12), Stevenson; Fyvie; Henderson, McGeouch, McGinn; Keatings, Stokes (Dagnall 76). Unused subs: Boyle, Thomson, Virtanen, Cummings.
Referee: John McKendrick