ON a night when the rain lashed down, there was always the scope for slips. But Hibs couldn’t afford any. Not if they wanted all their recent hard work to count for something.
It wasn’t so long ago that they trailed Rangers by a hefty 11 points, but another triumph last night allowed them to move within two points of the Ibrox side who must now feel Alan Stubbs men breathing down their necks.
Stretching back to August they have accrued an impressive tally of 10 league games without defeat, nine of them victories, including one over Rangers themselves at the beginning of this month. That left has allowed the Leith side to close the gap and give rise to the belief that they are legitimate contenders for the title and not simply also runs clinging to hopes of promotions via the play-offs.
The home side had to reshuffle the line-up, with Dominque Malonga engaged on international duties, and Paul Hanlon absent with a niggling injury, But such is the depth of the squad Stubbs now has at his disposal, the only difficulty he will have had in plugging those gaps will have been choosing between the ready made replacements vying for a starting place. In the end Martin Boyle and Liam Fontaine got the nod.
That wealth of options is something Livingston manager Mark Burchill can only dream about. Sitting seventh in the league, he was hoping to make it three wins from four games but, underlining the gulf between the sides, he couldn’t even list a full complement of substitutes, a by product of a small squad and a cluster of untimely injuries.
But the fact they made a decent fist of the first half, keeping the half-time scoreline blank was credit to them. They ventured forward and tried to get a breakthrough and the stubborn defence of their goal played a big part in preventing Hibs opening their account at the other end.
They cut out crosses and threw bodies in the way as Hibs threatened. Their hosts, though, played their own part in that inability to fracture the deadlock. The thrust was there at times but there was no cut. The final ball wasn’t incisive, the finishing wasn’t clinical and extra second spent plotting the best way past Marc McCallum in the Livingston goal proved a luxury they couldn’t afford and the only invitation their opponents needed to close them down.
That profligacy in front of goal was surprising given the recent appetite for goals and the form of strikers like Jason Cummings and James Keatings.
By the time Cummings flashed a header wide of target in the 62nd minute, he should have been off celebrating a hat-trick instead of still looking for his first goal of the night. He had been given the chance to serve up an early opener. But having burst through in the 11th minute, evading his pursuers and rounding the keeper, he failed to find the open net. There were other chances, including another effort into the side netting just before that header.
But if Cummings was not at his clinical best, it didn’t matter too much in the end. While Cummings was the one being touted as a future Scotland international in the build up to the match, it was his fellow forward who grabbed the goals and, ultimately, the points.
Benefitting from some great build up play from John McGinn in the 51st minute,, the former Hearts striker, who netted a hat-trick in Hibs’ most recent win, a 4-1 trumping of St Mirren, again proved the man capable of converting Hibs’ greater possession and ability into something tangible.
Having found the net with a left foot finish from the middle of the area, he blasted a longer range beyond McCallum in the 62nd minute to take his personal tally to two for the night and give his team an unassailable advantage. With eight minute remaining he came within centimetres of a second successive hat-trick but the effort from inside the six yard box skipped the wrong side of the post.
Livingston had enjoyed a couple of scoring opportunities at the beginning of the half, with Scott Pittman and Myles Hippoltye testing Mark Oxley, and despite going two goals down, they continued to push for something. Stubbs had tried to shore things up, swapping Henderson for Marvin Bartley with just over 15 minutes remaining but in the 86th minute Livingston’s two substitutes combined, with Liam Buchanan cutting the ball back for Jordyn Sheerin to net a consolation goal.
Hibernian: Oxley, Gray, McGregor, Fontaine, Stevenson, Henderson (Bartley 74), Fyvie, McGinn, Keatings, Cummings (Feruz 82), Boyle (McGeouch 52), Unused subs: Reguero, El Alagui, Forster, Eckersley.
Livingston: McCallum, Neill, Gordon, Gallagher, Millen, Pittman, Faria, Gibbons, Longridge, White (Sheeran 82), Hippolyte (Buchanan 67). Unused subs: Jamieson, Georgiev, Glen.