INVERNESS warmed up for Sunday’s Scottish League Cup final against Aberdeen with a hard-fought 0-0 draw against Hibernian in the Highland capital.
Inverness 0 - 0 Hibernian
BOOKINGS: Inverness - Tremarco, Foran; Hibernian - Forster, McGivern
Referee: S Finnie
Venue: Caledonian Stadium
Inverness Caledonian Thistle plugged the holes and steadied the ship ahead of the biggest game in their history, stemming a tide of ten goals conceded that had seeped through League Cup final preparations.
But, as Terry Butcher made his first official return to his old stomping ground since joining Hibernian in mid-November, the Highlanders failed to collect the victory needed to secure top-six football for the second year running, while Hibs’ two-year run without a win over Caley Thistle goes on.
The clean sheet was more than welcome for the Celtic Park-bound hosts, given the successive 5-0 batterings at the hands of Celtic and Dundee United. They moved fourth above Dundee Untied last night but it was hard to avoid the conclusion that this game was merely a distraction to be dealt with ahead of the first major national final in their 20-year existence.
Stalemate ensued, and it was dreary at times, but the outcome was nothing but salutary in the circumstances for John Hughes’ side four days ahead of the final.
Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes was in attendance for a second match running in Inverness, no doubt keen to monitor some pre-final reshuffling.
Hughes’ team selection, given the magnitude of the next match, was always going to be intriguing. Marley Watkins and Greg Tansey, both red-carded controversially against Dundee United, were enforced absences.
Graeme Shinnie and James Vincent, both likely cup final starters, dropped to the bench while right-back David Raven was left out. Opportunity knocked for Nick Ross, Danny Devine, Carl Tremarco, Liam Polworth and Danny Williams.
The return of Butcher to the Highland capital, in different circumstances, would have dominated the build-up. Hibs had pressing issues of their own to address, with just one win in the previous nine games. Tom Taiwo returned from suspension to replace Liam Craig and on-loan Sunderland midfielder Duncan Watmore nudged Lewis Stevenson onto the bench.
Hibs were alert to Caley Thistle’s early attacking intent. In fact, they were first to seriously threaten with Danny Haynes beating a path into the box and cutting the ball square to Mick McGivern. The defender struck cleanly from the edge of the box, but goalkeeper Dean Brill reacted sharply to tip over the bar.
A lightning break on the counter by Caley Thistle ended with Aaron Doran burrowing in from the left and curling a shot just beyond the far post.
From there, scrappy hardly described it. There was little composure from either side, although the home side’s passing and movement was slightly more convincing than Hibs’.
Sam Stanton thrashed wide from distance after 18 minutes and Hibs pressed, but all too often lacked quality in the final ball. When Paul Cairney cleverly carved space for Ryan McGivern to the left of the box, the full-back’s cross was a disappointment, easily blocked and cleared.
In the second half, if anything, standards dived further. There were scant flashes of creativity. After 56 minutes, Doran, always lively, broke on the right and flighted a measured pass over the top to Billy McKay. The 20-goal striker controlled on the run, but could only ruffle the side-netting.
Five minutes later, home captain Richie Foran entered the book for a clumsy two-footed tackle that caught Stanton. Given how many red cards were flashed here on Sunday against Dundee United, there must have been a moment of concern in the home technical area.
There was hope for the hosts when a lovely through pass by Nick Ross set up Doran to the left of the box. The Irishman struck with purpose from the angle but Ben Williams parried.
The game died out with barely a whimper. More pressing matters – a date with history, no less – await Inverness.