Time for Hibs to deliver

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MIXU PAATELAINEN may have felt the level of criticism levelled at him as Hibs endured a tortuous pre-season programme was somewhat unjustified, ignoring as it did the fact those matches were simply preparation for what was to come.

The Easter Road boss most certainly had a case at that time, but now the spotlight is firmly back on Paatelainen following a grim run of five matches without a win.

It's a record which has seen Hibs slip slowly but surely down the SPL table to the extent they now lie closer to bottom place than to third.

Paatelainen, of course, could argue with some justification that his side are merely going through the sort of difficult period every SPL side outwith the Old Firm has suffered so far.

The statistics would most certainly add weight to the Finn's case, last night's opponents having gone five games without a win at the start of the season; Hearts' victory over St Mirren ending a run of seven games without a win; Motherwell winning just one out of their first six; Aberdeen beaten in their first four matches.

And so on. Every team has struggled at times, the reason why just 12 points separate third from Hamilton in the relegation spot as the Old Firm begin their annual drive away from the rest.

The facts, however, will provide little solace today for a Hibs support which is becoming increasingly frustrated at the undoubted talent within Paatelainen's squad failing to deliver.

Paatelainen himself has, naturally, become the focus of much of that pent-up anger. His favoured 4-3-3 formation, his tactics and team selection are the subject of intense debate, with opinion polarised among a support, the vast majority of which is willing a former hero – who'll always be held in great affection given his hat-trick against Hearts – to succeed.

That was then, however, and no matter how much Paatelainen's playing days in a green-and-white shirt are remembered, he knows full well that supporters will quickly detach themselves from sentiment unless results improve.

After this latest setback, a win which stretched Dundee United's unbeaten run to ten matches since they were beaten at Easter Road in mid-September, Paatelainen admitted the heat was on.

He said: "I understand the fans' frustration, you should have seen me in the dressing-room. I was totally frustrated. I feel pressure because I want to win matches and do well.

"At the moment, we are not doing that because we do not use the quality we have in the team."

As promised, Paatelainen wielded the axe following the weekend defeat by Inverness Caledonian Thistle, a result which ended the Highland outfit's own miserable run of form, making five changes which resulted in a starting line-up consisting of seven of his own signings.

The 4-3-3 was adapted slightly in the absence of the injured Steven Fletcher with Dean Shiels operating behind a front two of Colin Nish and Derek Riordan, and in front of a totally reshaped midfield of John Rankin, Ross Chisholm and Joe Keenan.

There were changes, too, at the back, skipper Rob Jones missing for a personal reason on which Paatelainen wouldn't elaborate, his absence resulting in Steve Thicot partnering Chris Hogg in the centre while Sol Bamba was shipped out to right-back.

However, despite the radical surgery, Hibs were again let down by the all too familiar lapses in concentration which have blighted recent weeks, undoing much of the decent work which had preceded them.

If Hibs didn't carve out too many first half openings they were, at least, competitive and, according to Paatelainen, worthy of heading up the tunnel on level terms as, in the main, they matched United.

No amount of work and planning put into any particular match can, however, legislate for the individual errors which have cost Hibs so dearly, former Easter Road defender Darren Dods left unmarked to nod home Craig Conway's cross.

If Hibs were caught napping at that point, they were fast asleep six minutes later as Francisco Sandaza was afforded acres of space to nod home Willo Flood's quickly taken free-kick.

Paatelainen bemoaned the standard of defending, saying: "We knew United put in a lot of crosses that's why we went with the back-line we did – strong boys good at defending and heading the ball.

"Not too adventurous, but just good defenders. But they were day dreaming, if you do not make sure you are first to the ball and the strikers are sharp they will score goals. Certain individuals fell asleep in these situations which was disappointing."

Adding to Paatelainen's frustration was the knowledge the game could well have turned less than 60 seconds before Dods struck, Shiels robbing the stopper deep inside his own half before delivering the ball for Nish to thunder in a netbound shot.

But Lukasz Zaluska was alert to the danger, the United goalkeeper throwing himself high to his left to push the ball aside, leaving Paatelainen to rue what might have been. He said: "It was a fantastic effort, what a save it was.

"All credit to the goalkeeper, goals change matches and if that had gone in it could have been totally different."

United boss Craig Levein concurred but insisted, rightly, that his team deserved to win the match, the chasm in confidence between the two sides all too evident following the goals from Dods and Sandaza as the Tannadice side surged forward in search of a third goal which would have made life a lot more comfortable.

He said: "I thought we played some fantastic football, at 2-0 you are always nervous. We should have scored a third to put us on easy street because Hibs are always dangerous on the counter-attack. It would have been a travesty, at least in my eyes, had we lost, but it can happen."

Apart from a late surge which again would have been too little too late, there was little danger of Hibs hauling themselves back into the match, leaving Paatelainen to ponder yet another tricky fixture, Saturday's visit from Aberdeen who have been finding it easier to play away from home this season.

And perhaps the question which might exert his mind more than most will be what to do with Riordan who, despite having scored four goals, has rarely lived up to the hype which surrounded his return to Easter Road.

While the striker carries an undoubted threat, there are times when he looks like a luxury Hibs can ill-afford, on this occasion Riordan expending almost as much energy moaning at his team-mates over misplaced passes or, in his eyes, wrong decisions, as he did on the ball.

At times like these, Hibs need 11 players with their sleeves rolled up and prepared to graft for the 90 minutes rather than flit around the edges of the game.

It may be a cliche, but hard work really does bring its rewards.

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