LEIGH Griffiths struck for the fifth game in succession, taking his tally for the season to 12 as Hibs went top of the SPL table yet again.
Hibs: Griffiths (19) Doyle (51)
Dundee Utd: Mackay-Steven (53)
Griffiths volleyed home Eoin Doyle’s cross in the 18th minute and the Irish striker himself doubled the Easter Road outfit’s lead early in the second half only for a terrible defensive mix-up to gift Johnny Russell a lifeline for United.
And Hibs had to grimly hang on for their win as former Hearts star Rudi Skacel had a goal dubiously ruled out for offisde before the Czech star rattled Ben Williams’ bar with a trenendous volley.
Hibs fans were dealt a shock before kick-off with a back spasm ruling skipper James McPake out of action, the big defender joining Tim Clancy (groin) and Gary Deegan (broken jaw) on the sidelines as Lewis Stevenson was drafted in for his first start since breaking a toe in the derby against Hearts on August 12.
Pat Fenlon’s side may have been accused of being slow starters on occasion this season, but this afternoon they were on the front foot from the first whistle, eager and determined as they pinned United back, Tannadice goalkeeper Radoslaw Cierzniak gifting Hibs the first opening as he inexplicably picked up Sean Dillon’s passback inside his area.
Paul Cairney touched the ball for Griffiths to have his first strike of the game but, as so often happens in such a situation, his effort was blocked by the rushing wall of tangerine jerseys.
There was nothing, however, United could to do stop Griffiths as he opened the scoring in the 18th minute, volleying home at the back post after Cairney’s superb reverse pass had found Eoin Doyle on the left, the Irish hitman delivering an inviting cross for his team-mate to lash beyond the helpless Cierzniak with his less favoured right foot.
Doyle thought he had made it two for Hibs seven nine minutes later as he picked up a loose header from Gavin Gunning, but he’d drifted into an offside position while it took a despairing last-ditch challenge from Willo Flood to halt David Wotherspoon’s charge deep into the United penalty area.
Such had been Hibs superiority, it came as no suprise when United boss Peter Houston made an early change replacing Mark Millar with Gary Mackay-Steven 12 minutes before the interval no doubt hoping the winger’s trickery would cause veteran defender Alan Maybury a problem or two.
Seconds before his introduction a foul by McGivern, partnering Paul Hanlon in central defence, had presented the Tayside outfit with their first real opportunity but Gunning hammered the free-kick well wide of target.
However, as half-time approached United began to exert some sustained pressure on Hibs for the first time and Flood went close after Mackay-Steven had shown his threat by wriggling his way to the bye-line before cutting the ball back for his team-mate who clipped the ball a couple of feet past Ben Williams’ near post.
Hibs, though, caught United cold at the start of the second half, Tom Taiwo playing a delightful ball for Cairney who nutmegged Dillon before cuting the ball back for Doyle to hammer into the roof of the net.
The home fans’ joy lessened somewhat just two minutes later as Paul Hanlon, under pressure, knocked the ball back for goalkeeper Williams who appeared to be caugh tin two minds, the upshot being a poor clearance which found Russell 20 yards out and he had no problems in sliding the ball into the empty net.
Skacel got the predicted reception as he replaced Stuart Armstrong in the 58th minute, the introduction of the Czech star a clear indcationn of United’s intent, Houston’s players having been thrown a lifeline by that totally avoidable goal.
The game was beginning to become stretched which perhaps suited Hibs more with the pace and movement of Griffiths and Doyle although Russell and Mackay-Steven were carrying just as much threat at the other end with the onus being on United to go seeking that equaliser.
Skacel thought he’d done so when he got on the end of Flood’s cross but he was ruled offside while Taiwo chanced his luck with a half-hit shot which nevertheless crept just wide of Cierzniak’s right hand post before Skacel hammered a vicious volley off the bar..
Hibs: Williams, Maybury, Hanlon, McGivern, Stevenson, Wotherspoon (Sproule 79), Taiwo, Claros, Cairney, Griffiths (Kuqi 76), Doyle (Stanton 89).
Subs not used: Murdoch, Handling, Caldwell, Donaldson.
Dundee United: Cierzniak, Watson, McLean, Dillon, Gunning, Flood, Millar (Mackay-Steven 33), Rankin, Armstong (Skacel 58), Russell, Daly. Subs not used: Banks, Douglas, Ryan, Gardyne, Dow.
Referee: Craig Thomson.