Craig Fowler looks back at the first leg of the Ladbrokes Premiership play-off quarter-final.
Hibs are succumbing to fatalism
The Hibs players looked like they were enjoying the first half yesterday. Rather than playing with jitters, they seemed to gone out on to the park with a determination to discredit any talk of them being dumped at out at the quarter-finals. Raith may have only lost twice in 17 matches coming into the encounter, both against Rangers, but Hibs previously defeated them on three occasions this season and quickly set about proving that they were the better side.
But when the goal didn’t come, you could see the tension start to take hold of Hibs. It didn’t help that the hosts began to drop deeper, making it harder for Hibs to force their way through. The visitors would either take too many touches or make one pass too many in the final third, or they would get frustrated and shoot when there wasn’t much on. The longer the game went on the more the feeling grew that Raith were going to get something and the moment duly arrived with 15 minutes remaining.
You’ve got to speculate to accumulate
Ray McKinnon may not have made the attacking double change that swung the match in Raith’s favour if this were a regular league fixture. He may have been content with a draw. However, he would have known that, particularly without away goals, Raith had little chance of advancing to the semi-finals and a meeting with Falkirk if they didn’t beat Hibs last night. So even though it became increasingly obvious the away side were running low on ideas of how to break their hosts down, he still felt compelled to make an attacking substitution to try and win the game. It not only worked in the sense that the subs combined to score, with Harry Panayiotou heading home Louis Longridge’s cross, it also took some of the stress off the back-line. Hibs still dominated the ball but when Rovers got it clear they were at least able to make it stick more in the opposing half.
It’ll be interesting to see how McKinnon approaches the away leg. Will he go with a similar sort of set-up with both Iain Davidson and Lewis Toshney sitting in front of the back four, hoping that they can keep Hibs out for another 90 minutes? Or will he retain two up front in an attempt to nick a second goal?
The blame-game is wearing thin
Alan Stubbs rarely points the finger of blame at his players. While it’s not what the fans want to hear after a frustrating loss, at least it keeps the dressing room united. Besides, it’s likely that he’s saying something very different in private.
After last night’s loss, Stubbs lamented both the referees and the state of the Stark’s Park pitch. In particular, he fumed about a turned-down penalty appeal shortly before Raith opened the scoring, as Fraser Fyvie’s attempted cross struck the arm of Lewis Toshney. While there’s no doubt it hit Toshney’s arm, the defensive midfielder was in such close proximity to his opponent that it’s easy to see why the officials decided it wasn’t deliberate, even if his arm was at a somewhat unusual angle.
The more a manager loses and continues to protect his player by blaming anyone else, the more they become open to ridicule, regardless of what his motivations are. This is not a position Stubbs wants to find himself in, particularly at such a crucial juncture of the season.
Ryan Hardie is unbeatable
The young striker remains undefeated in any match he has played this season, extending his streak to 15 games last night. Those numbers are padded out by four substitute appearances during one-sided Rangers victories earlier in the campaign, but he’s still amassed a very impressive record of nine wins and two draws from his 11 matches in a Raith Rovers shirt and is a big reason why the Kirkcaldy club are the form team in the country.
Rovers have looked disciplined, organised and difficult to break down all season. Their problem in the first half of the campaign was the lack of options up front, an issue that existed right from the outset when Lewis Vaughan, tipped to have a breakout season, went down with a serious knee injury. Craig Wighton and Jon Daly failed to provide sufficient cover, leaving Mark Stewart to carry the attacking load. Often when football fans say “we’re one good [enter position] away from being a top side” it turns out to be far more complicated with that, but with Raith it was entirely simple. They needed a good striker to make them play-off contenders, they got one and now they have a decent chance of getting it all the way to the final.
If Hibs are to stop them they’ll need to be the first team all season to make Hardie taste defeat.
Hibs are the stronger side
They won the possession battle 55-45 and had 16 efforts on goal to Raith Rovers’ three (according to BBC statistics). Considering they were the away side, it should be enough to prove to the Hibs players that, if execute properly in the game at Easter Road, they will be the side advancing to the semi-finals. Unfortunately, football is rarely that simple. If they’re to get there, they need to unburden themselves with the expectations of getting back to the top flight while simultaneously forgetting the last three months of below-par results. They’ll be adamant their collective concentration is focusing solely on Raith and this one game, blocking out all other distractions, but saying so and doing so are two very different things.