Craig Fowler gives his take on a thrilling 90 minutes of football in the first leg of the Ladbrokes Premiership play-off semi-final.
Hibs need to push the pace
Falkirk came to Easter Road and set out in the gameplan everyone thought they would: a straight 4-4-2, two narrow banks of four and the plan to hit on the counter attack with “wide” midfielders Craig Sibbald and Blair Alston supporting the front two of Lee Miller and John Baird. There’s a reason the Bairns have gone through the entire Ladbrokes Championship season losing fewer games than any other team, including a Rangers team that cantered to the title. They are disciplined, regimented and work tirelessly as a team. In the first half Hibs played right into their laps with a sluggish approach that was far too slow to break the visitors down. It appeared for the first five minutes of the second half that this trend would continue until, from somewhere, Hibs found the gear stick and started to up the tempo. Once they did this they were able to pull their opponents this way and that, creating space in which to exploit the visitors. It’ll be interesting to see if Falkirk adopt a similar approach as the home side on Friday, as there will be more onus on them to attack, but there’s no doubt Hibs wasted a quarter of this tie playing with a lack of urgency.
Width could determine this tie
It’s ironic that Peter Houston once stated the manner in which to defeat Hibs was to get cross balls into the box, because his side are not equipped to take advantage of this weakness, particularly away from home. That’s not a criticism of the Falkirk boss. You don’t construct a squad to face just one team, and he’s done a terrific job getting the most out of this unit. At the Falkirk Stadium, Luke Leahy may make more of an impact because, tonight, his job was mainly about defending. There is no other player in the starting XI who’ll readily look to hit the byline and swing a ball in.
As for Hibs, it’s a tactic they need to take more advantage of and they must show less hesitancy when in wider areas. This was another part of their game which was night and day when you compare first half and second half. Both goals were a product of getting the ball wide and putting an early cross into the penalty area. Even when there’s not much on it’s an effective tactic as it causes the opposition to deal with it, which is what happened when John McGinn’s ball was cleared for a corner, from which Darren McGregor headed Hibs in front.
Bob McHugh is guaranteed to score a late goal
The supersub has netted five goals in his last eight games and all of them have come in the last 20 minutes. There’s been a call from Falkirk fans for the former Motherwell striker to start and they’ll only get louder after he managed to do what John Baird couldn’t and that’s get a clean strike at goal. Although, to be fair, Baird had little to go on. It was his job to link up play between the midfielder and Lee Miller, and he wasn’t helped by Miller’s performance as the veteran seemed to have difficulties with the surface or his boots or trapping the ball without falling over in general. It’s likely Houston will keep McHugh in reserve in case he needs a late goal once again.
David McCracken is better with his hands than Conrad Logan
You need a little bit of luck in any football match and it certainly evaded Hibs tonight. First, Tom Taiwo’s shot hits off Lee Miller - he says he meant it, I have my doubts - deceiving Logan in the Hibs goal, then with the game in their grasp, at 2-1 up and on the verge of taking a commanding lead in the tie, Alan Muir misses what appears to be a blatant handball in the area. After the match, former Hibs skipper Stuart Lovell said on BT Sport that he thought, contrary to popular opinion, that it wasn’t a penalty. His point, which was a fair one, was that McCracken wasn’t looking at the ball and he inadvertently placed his hand on top of it as he tried to get up. It would have to be deliberate to be a foul and this was Lovell’s reasoning. What he’s forgetting is that you don’t have to be looking at the ball to know exactly where it is. McCracken wasn’t looking directly at the ball but he didn’t have his head in the clouds either. It’s more than likely the defender knew what he was doing.
The Hibs goalkeeping question is back
Mark Oxley has made several mistakes during his Easter Road career so it would be unfair on Logan if this error, his first in an almost fluorescent green shirt, meant he was immediately binned for his team-mate. However, it should be noted that Stubbs, until very recently, showed unwavering faith in and loyalty towards Oxley. It’s why he kept Tomas Cerny, who’s been excellent at a higher level with Partick Thistle this season, on the subs bench throughout the entire second half of last term. It must have been with a heavy heart that he went with Logan over Oxley and this error may just be enough to change his mind once more.