Aidan Smith: Rangers’ toil overwhelms Hibernian

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KNEES knocking, tails firmly between legs and dabbing at the nosebleeds which always seem to afflict them on nights such as these, the bottlers, big-game flops and flatter-to-deceivers of Hibernian crept into Govan.

Honestly, you’d think the players would be fed up of such descriptions, especially when so few of them were involved in the torments and tragedies of the past. Did they seem nervous as they took the field at an Ibrox which had remembered, hopefully in the nick of time for Stuart McCall’s team, how to be sold out and rumbustious? Not really.

Hibernian's David Gray challenges Lee Wallace for possession. Picture: SNS

Hibernian's David Gray challenges Lee Wallace for possession. Picture: SNS

Lining up, they looked different. More composed? Perhaps. More tanned? Well, no one had absent-mindedly carried their aftersun onto the pitch, or the latest chick-lit or whatever it is you might think Hibees read on their holidays. Yes, while Rangers were toiling away, playing tough games, Alan Stubbs’ men had been on a Spanish break.

It was the stuck-at-homes versus the sunshine boys, a match of rare intrigue. Hibs had won thumpingly three times in league games between the sides, only to beaten in the fourth and most recent match, wrong-footed by a tactical change and some long-overdue steel from the team in light blue. And who, really, were the bottlers?

Was it Hibs? McCall didn’t think the accusation was apt; in their Scottish Cup semi they’d been unlucky. Or was it Rangers? The slur been directed at his team, too, and almost certainly would have been again at half-time on Sunday, before they were able to squeeze past Queen of the South.

Adding further intrigue, McCall had remarked that Rangers didn’t have to win last night’s first leg to progress. This made us think that come Saturday’s return he was planning a repeat of the mean 3-5-2 which earned them three points at Easter Road in March. So how was he going to approach last night?

Lee Wallace, man of the match in March, and the most conspicuous Ranger in the first half against Queens, would have been hoping for the same licence to roam, but he had to keep an eye on David Gray, missing two months ago. Indeed in the early stages, most in the home side were reduced to watching as Hibs stroked the ball around with style and purpose.

As ever, Scott Allan was prominent while up front Jason Cummings seemed delighted to be re-acquainted with a ball in a competitive situation for the first time in 18 days.

Alongside him Dominique Malonga, who can frustrate with his languidity, was moving with great zip. Hibs didn’t seem to have brought their flip-flops, far less their Crocs.

Dean Shiels skipped around looking to buy yards to create something. Kenny Miller produced one turn which turned back the clock for the veteran striker.

Haris Vuckic was always willing to try his party-piece – cutting inside for a left-foot shot. But Rangers weren’t getting forward all that often. Hibs were building up considerable momentum.

This was characterised by a thrilling Allan run from deep inside his own half. After leaving Nicky Law gasping somewhere around halfway, he surged into the Rangers box to play a one-two with Malonga, Richard Foster making the crucial interception. The Congolese international was involved in Hibs’ next threatening move, with Cummings just failing to connect with his low cross.

A series of corners seemed to keep the home side where Hibs wanted them, keeping the stands quiet into the bargain. But then all their good work was undone. Vuckic was looking for his usual shooting opportunity but, closed down, he contrived the cleverest of flicks to Foster, who crossed for Nicky Clark to score.

This game was taking on the complexion of the Petrofac Cup tie between the sides at the beginning of the season when Hibs dominated, scooped all the style plaudits but still ended up losing.

To add insult to injury Allan was pelted with scrunched-up paper from the pre-match display as he tried to take a corner in front of the Broomloan Stand.

His aim was still good, and even better from the other side where the small knot of Hibs fans were situated, but Malonga muffed a free header.

Hibs would regret that miss when Rangers broke upfield to double their lead, the tireless Miller latching onto a towering Wallace header. McCall’s men briefly threatened to add to their lead but soon settled for what they had. This must have been more than the manager had hoped for, and especially given the general flow of the game.

The Hibees, meanwhile, must have felt like the hapless victims of a holiday from hell. They travel a long way to reach their dream destination – the length of a football season, no less –only to find some other people already inside their luxury accommodation.