THE Edinburgh derby has long been known as a fast and frantic fixture, but this season more than a little football has been added to the mix. Both managers had said that their teams would try to play a passing game, and both were true to their word, as Hearts and Hibernian served up one of the most engrossing matches of the season so far.
The high tempo with which Hibs started and indeed ended the match was to be expected. Not only had it paid dividends the previous week against Rangers, when they had taken a two-goal lead within 11 minutes, it was also an indication of their need for a win.
While Alan Stubbs’ team approached the game as if it were a cup-tie, Hearts, 19 points ahead of their neighbours, were able to treat it as another league match. For all that Hibs dominated the match for long spells, they were unable to deliver the knockout blow they needed to nibble into that substantial deficit, leaving Hearts the happier of the two sides at the end.
The Championship leaders now have five points out of a possible nine from the derby this season, and six out of six against second-placed Rangers. They were below their best here, as has been the case over the past two or three weeks, but it should be noted that they have held on to their unbeaten record despite having three of their four recognised strikers out injured.
The fact that James Keatings was the only one of that quartet available made it all but inevitable that Robbie Neilson would opt for a 4-5-1 formation, and the threat of Hibs playmaker Scott Allan confirmed the home head coach in his preference. Yet despite that numerical superiority in midfield, Hearts were close to being overrun at times during the early exchanges, in which their normally solid back four showed signs of nervousness.
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A first-minute slip by Alim Ozturk allowed Jason Cummings a sight of goal, and although Neil Alexander saved the shot, it was far from the only chance that the Hearts defence allowed the Hibs striker. Cummings opened the scoring midway through the half with a deft first-time finish from an Allan cross, but the goal owed as much to Hearts’ slackness as it did to Hibs’ invention. First Allan was allowed far too much room on the right, and then Ozturk appeared unaware until too late that Cummings was ghosting in behind him.
It was a well-deserved lead, and one that should have been doubled not long after. The impressive Lewis Stevenson provided the cross this time, and Danny Wilson’s misjudgement allowed Cummings a free header at the back post. His effort was off-target, and the moment went down as a major turning point in the game.
Perhaps understandably given that most teams have sat back and tried to stifle them, Hearts were discomfited by Hibs’ pressing game, and were unusually lacklustre for almost all of the first half. They needed a touch of inspiration, and got it five minutes before the break from Jamie Walker, who created the space for himself on the left of the box to fire a blistering shot into the far corner.
Hearts enjoyed their best spell of the match in the first quarter-hour of the second half, with Adam Eckersley heading wide from Sam Nicholson in the early part of that period. Both teams had penalty claims denied when first Danny Handling and then Morgaro Gomis went down, but Hearts were winning far more second balls by this time, and Callum Paterson then Nicholson headed over as they began to exert serious pressure on Mark Oxley’s goal.
Hibs threw everything they had into the latter stages, with Dylan McGeouch making a return from injury off the bench and new loan signing Mark Boyle coming on for the last seven or eight minutes. But the Hearts defence, its first-half hesitation long gone, was resolute, dealing defiantly with any number of dangerous crosses.
Rangers’ win over Dumbarton later that afternoon reduced the Tynecastle club’s lead to 13 points, but on their current form the Ibrox club will be looking anxiously behind them rather than hopefully ahead. In any case, for those awaiting a run of bad form by Hearts, the bad news is that they may already have experienced it. Certainly, they have been very unfortunate with injuries, and when Osman Sow, Soufian El Hassnaoui and Dale Carrick all return in the coming weeks they will be far more potent up front.
Hibs, meanwhile, will quickly get over the disappointment of failing to win this game. They are playing some excellent football, and doing so, moreover, with what Stubbs called “authority”: in other words, they are not lightweights any more, and appear in ideal shape to go on and make second place their own.
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