The scoreline might have been as expected, but a surprisingly bold and some might say slightly eccentric-looking Hibernian team coped better than many imagined they would against the champions yesterday.
SCORERS - Commons 9, 90 (pen), van Dijk 77, Pukki 83
While a 4-0 defeat sounds comprehensive, three of these goals came in the final 15 minutes as Hibs tired after taking the game to Celtic in impressive fashion following the interval.
There was also little anyone could do about a finish of the quality conjured up by Virgil van Dijk after 76 minutes. The Celtic centre-half is a handy acquisition when it comes to set-piece execution. This is not the first time that the lofty Dutchman has ambled up from the back and struck a free kick with more elan than anyone might expect from a central defender. However, there were complaints from Hibs about why he was even given the chance to showcase this impressive talent.
Certainly Terry Butcher was adamant that the free kick should never have been awarded after substitute Teemu Pukki’s attempt to thread the ball through to Georgios Samaras hit Michael Nelson’s hand. Craig Thomson blew for a foul and booked the Hibs defender, who complained that it had been unintentional, as did Butcher, who was later spoken to by the referee.
It was especially deflating for the home side because they had come so close to equalising ten minutes earlier. Fraser Forster is proving that he is not prepared to give up his run of clean sheets without a fight. It is now ten games since the goalkeeper conceded a goal in domestic competition. Forster twisted his body in the air to fist away Sam Stanton’s fine strike after the 19-year-old had turned away from his marker before shooting towards the top corner. It had looked a goal all the way before Forster’s timely – and defining – intervention.
Had this shot gone in, Hibs would have been level with just over 20 minutes left to play.
Stanton lived up to the famous surname and made one of the finest debut start appearances many could remember at Easter Road. No novice, he has already played on several occasions as substitute over the last two years. However, this 90-minute showing explained why his manager has been almost salivating at the thought of what Stanton might go on and do in the game. “He is one that excites me,” said Butcher on Friday. Now those who have not been following his progress in the under-20s know why.
One of the teenager’s strong points is the ability to make space for himself in tight areas. He forced Forster into a good block in the first half and also shot narrowly over the bar, again after a neat turn.
Abdellah Zoubir is not a name for the ages in Leith – not yet, at least. But the Frenchman grew into the game after an undistinguished first half and might have drawn Hibs level himself with shots that had Forster scrambling across his line twice in quick succession. Again, the goalkeeper excelled himself. His first save from Zoubir was comparable to his Stanton stop as he clawed the ball away from under the bar. The second, after the ball again found its way to Zoubir from the resultant corner, was slightly more functional but no less effective for that.
Butcher caused surprise in terms of his team selection. It was almost as if the Hibs manager had opted to give this fixture away for free. Perhaps he figured that if this unfamiliar-looking side managed to pull off a surprise result, all well and good. And if they were to fail in this quest then losing to a team who are unbeaten in the league all season is not an earth-shattering outcome.
The one concern was the danger of suffering a humiliating result similar to some of those Celtic have dished out on their travels this season. This unwanted outcome looked a distinct possibility when Neil Lennon’s side opened the scoring after only seven minutes.
Hibs had looked shaky in the opening spell, as might have been anticipated given the number of changes. In addition to full debutant Stanton, Butcher recalled Tom Taiwo for his first start since November. Zoubir made his first start since the last meeting here against Celtic, in October, while Alex Harris featured in the first XI for the first time since the opening day of the league season.
There is no denying that news of these personnel changes sent a frisson of excitement – most likely of the nervous variety – rippling through the home fans. One perceptive gentleman was quick to re-calculate his prediction, upping a 3-0 home loss to 4-0. And when Kris Commons capitalised on a dreadful mix-up between Michael Nelson and Jordon Forster so early in the game, this supporter’s bleak assessment appeared to be a very sound one.
While the subsequent events also bore out such a gloomy outlook, Butcher was one of those who later stressed that he did not feel as if his side had suffered a 4-0 defeat. It had looked set to be a tricky afternoon, he admitted, when Hibs conceded so quickly. Centre-half pairing Jordon Forster and Nelson got in each other’s way in frankly comical fashion as they sought to deal with a long ball forward from Emilio Izaguirre. Commons jinked through and took full advantage as he rolled the ball past Ben Williams.
The referee did little to endear himself to the Hibs fans from early on, but then Thomson is never going to win a popularity contest in this stadium. He waved away appeals for a penalty when James Collins slumped to the turf while trying to evade Van Dijk’s challenge. Celtic manager Neil Lennon reacted to his side’s failure to add to the early goal by replacing Nir Biton with Teemu Pukki at half-time, changing his side’s shape considerably. While this alteration might be said to have worked in the long run, Hibs were the dominant team for long spells after half-time.
Zoubir looked like a different player, while Stanton built on his lively first-half display. Harris, too, probed more effectively down the left. But if Forster’s heroics were dispiriting for the young Hibs side, then Van Dijk’s spectacular free kick from 25 yards was enough to break any opponent’s resolve, however experienced. Even Butcher admitted that he would have been floored had he been playing.
Pukki feasted on the loss of heart when powering home Celtic’s third goal after 82 minutes, although Williams will be disappointed at being beaten from a wide position. Alan Maybury’s needless push on Pukki as the pair were running away from goal was the clearest evidence that Hibs’ spirit was broken. Commons rifled home from the spot in his customary manner.