What deflated Hibs must find to stop superior Hearts in Hampden derby re-match that matters more
Hearts have laid down a marker and asserted their superiority. With pressure already mounting on Shaun Maloney, Hibs simply must respond when the team meet again in the Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden.
For both sides of the city, Saturday’s re-match is the one that matters more. There’s much more than semi-final derby bragging rights on the line at the national stadium. Hearts can guarantee group stage European football with a victory. Hibs can keep their season alive.
For both teams, a place in the cup final and an opportunity to win a major trophy at the end of the season should be incentive enough.
So the stakes are high, but that probably plays into Hearts’ hands. Hibs fans have good reason to be pessimistic. After all, with a top-six place on the line, the stakes were higher for Hibs going into Saturday’s Tynecastle clash. They failed to deliver.
Robbie Neilson even changed his formation to match up Hibs man-for-man. He knew Shaun Maloney’s team had to go for it and needed to win. That decision from the Hearts boss looked lik e it had back-fired early on. Hibs could not have asked for a better start. But the second-half collapse probably came as little surprise to many Hibs fans who had hoped for the best but probably feared the worst.
Struggling for form and goals, they now have just one win in the 13 league games played under Maloney this year. Three goals in six league games does little to inspire confidence. Neither does the way Hibs wilted after such a promising start in Gorgie.
The most galling aspect of the capitulation was the lack of self-belief. From the moment Stephen Kingsley scored the second for Hearts shortly after half time, it was game over. Hibs never looked like a team who believed they could fight back. Maloney threw on three subs in a bid to mix it up but the changes had little impact.
Hearts had won their individual battles by then and were in total command. Neilson’s second-choice central midfield pairing of Andy Halliday and Peter Haring managed to wrestle control of the engine room from Hibs first-choice duo of Joe Newell and Jake Doyle-Hayes. The Hibs pair made the better start, moving the ball slickly and taking the early initiative. But Haring and Halliday kept plugging away and never doubted that they had what was required to get the upper hand eventually.
At one end Elias Melkersen looked lightweight as the main striker directly up against a strong and aggressive Craig Halkett. At the other, Ellis Simms was proving to be much more of a handful for Paul Hanlon, out-muscling the Hibs centre-back in the lead up to Halliday’s equaliser.
It was the same story all over the pitch. Supporting the striker, Hibs had Chris Mueller, who had a bright opening 20 minutes but then faded. Hearts had the masterful Barrie McKay. Like an ice dancer, his fluid movement, twists, turns and change of direction left Rocky Bushiri looking like Bambi at times. The on-loan Belgium defender looked uncomfortable all afternoon.
Even in the wide areas, Hearts were superior. Chris Cadden has been Hibs’ most consistent and arguably best player all season and is more experienced than opposite number Alex Cochrane. But the young left-midfielder won that battle with his best performance in a Hearts jersey, robbing Cadden in the lead up to the third goal.
At the other side, Harry Clarke got pass marks for Hibs but Nathaniel Atkinson edged the duel over 90 minutes.
Not for the first time this year, Hibs created little. Indeed, Drey Wright’s early goal was their only shot on target.
Many fans scoffed at the selection of Wright ahead of Sylvester Jasper, who was carrying a knock, but after making an instant impact with a goal after four and a half minutes Hibs certainly missed the much-maligned Englishman when he limped off after 35 minutes or so. Coincidental or not, that’s when the game changed. Hearts got a foothold and never looked back.
Wright may not be the most technically gifted of players, but he is a trier. He provided energy in the opening half hour. Hibs pressed, hassled and harried. Hearts were unsettled, forced to play long. But Wright’s energy and effort was missing after half time when Hibs were bullied into submission. As one fan put it, it looked like ‘men against boys’.
Maloney’s challenge this week is to make sure that doesn’t happen again. He needs to instil in Hibs far more self-belief than they displayed on Saturday. Do that and they can at least make a game of it.
Amid all the pessimism, it’s not a lost cause for Hibs. The bigger pitch at Hampden may suit their possession style. If Cammy Devlin still isn’t fit, the lack of mobility and energy levels offered by Haring and Halliday is something Hibs would look to exploit.
The big pitch will also give Melkersen, Jasper and Mueller more space to run at and get in behind the Hearts defence.
As Halliday himself pointed out, Hibs were in very poor form when they last played in a semi-final at Hampden but managed to turn Rangers over.
Things can change quickly. Twelve months ago Hibs were chasing down a top-three finish and looking forward to a winnable Scottish Cup semi-final while Hearts toiled to get over the line in the Championship. Since then, Hibs haven’t just been overtaken by Hearts. They’ve watched their rivals disappear over the horizon.
Hearts have very good reason to be confident going into this derby. They need to guard against over-confidence. Hibs simply need to believe.