Falkirk ignite play-off hopes as Hibs fall off pace

Hibs striker Jason Cummings challenges Will Vaulks for the ball during Saturday's disappointing match. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Hibs striker Jason Cummings challenges Will Vaulks for the ball during Saturday's disappointing match. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

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A FORTNIGHT ago, in the aftermath of their 6-3 win at Dumbarton, Hibs striker Dominique Malonga was musing about the possibility of overhauling second-place Rangers. Now, after their first Championship defeat in almost three months, the Easter Road side’s most pressing matter is simply ensuring they remain in the top four.

Falkirk 1-0 Hibernian

Scorer: Falkirk - McCracken (90)

For all their impressive form of late, particularly away from home where they had won six on the spin before Saturday’s setback at Falkirk, Hibs now find themselves just two points ahead of a resurgent Bairns side.

Although the smart money remains on Alan Stubbs’ side being in the play-offs come the end of the season, it no longer appears as much of a formality as it did a couple of weeks ago. The Falkirk goalkeeper, Jamie MacDonald, certainly believes his team, who have now beaten Hibs twice this season, can eliminate the Edinburgh outfit from the promotion shake-up.

“Our aim was to close the gap on Hibs because we want to be in the play-offs at the end of the season,” said the former Hearts goalkeeper. “We made a bit of a slow start to the season but we’re starting to pick up and we’d like to think that, over the next few weeks, we can keep getting points and start catching the teams in the play-off spots.

“I think we can finish ahead of Hibs. We’ve beaten them twice this season so what’s to say we can’t finish ahead of them. Hearts and Rangers are quite far out in front but Hibs and Queen of the South are not far ahead of us now. It’ll go right to the wire but I don’t see why it can’t be ourselves and somebody else getting play-off spots rather than the big three finishing in the top three positions.”

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Hibs won’t be pushing the panic button after Saturday’s defeat, however. Although missing the attacking zest that has illuminated so many of their recent matches, an uninspiring encounter looked destined to finish scoreless as both sides struggled to make notable inroads in the final third. It was left to Falkirk centre-back David McCracken to decide the match with a low, 25-yard strike in the last minute.

Head coach Stubbs was unhappy with his side’s display, but insisted: “It was a 0-0 all over. I don’t think either team deserved to win. We’re not going to make a song and dance of it. We’ve been on a good run of late but this is a wake-up call that if we’re not prepared to do the basics and match teams for workrate and energy and second balls, then you run the risk of the other team snatching a result.”

Hibs appeared to miss the presence of the suspended Malonga in attack. This was the second time in succession that they have been unable to find the net when the recently-capped Congo internationalist has been unavailable. Paul Heffernan and Jason Cummings formed an ineffective attacking partnership in the first half before the latter was substituted at half-time for, in Stubbs’ words, “not doing enough”.

Cummings was replaced by 18-year-old academy prospect Lewis Allan, who marked his competitive debut with a busy display and a couple of threatening moments inside the Falkirk box. On the whole, however, Hibs’ attacking play was pretty impotent. It made for a frustrating day for Scott Allan. The maverick midfielder wasn’t at his brilliant best but was still the most likely Hibs player to make something happen.

Too often, however, those ahead of him didn’t appear to be on the same wavelength and his probings from midfield were to no avail. “We can’t have any complaints – I don’t think we did enough to win the game,” admitted vice-captain David Gray. “We’ve been great in the last few weeks and turned out some good results but we didn’t perform well enough. Defensively, Paul Hanlon was outstanding but we didn’t create anything near enough to win the game. I don’t think we necessarily deserved to get beat. It’s obviously disappointing to lose in the last minute but a draw wouldn’t have been a disaster for us because we didn’t play very well.”

Hibs carry a pretty small squad in comparison to Rangers and Hearts, and it is becoming evident that they generally toil whenever they are without a couple of key men. On Saturday, as well as Malonga, injuries meant Stubbs was unable to select Farid El Alagui, Jordon Forster, Dylan McGeouch and captain Liam Craig.

Lewis Allan wasn’t the only teenager to make his debut on Saturday. Scott Martin, 17, was sent on straight after Falkirk’s goal to try to salvage a point, underlining the shortage of options available to Stubbs when he is without a handful of players.

The head coach is eager to beef up his squad during next month’s transfer window and it is easy to see why. In the meantime, the focus for Hibs is on ensuring Saturday’s defeat was merely a blip and not the start of a rut which will allow hungry pursuers to gobble them up in the promotion scrap.

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