A contentious late penalty robbed Hibs of what would have been a victory at Tannadice and the chance to reclaim fourth place in the SPL table although they are now back in the top six.
Pat Fenlon’s side had fought back from losing a crazy opener, goalkeeper Ben Williams crashing a clearance off the back of former Hibs star John Rankin and into his net, before skipper James McPake glanced home an equaliser and then Leigh Griffiths fired them ahead with a stunning strike early in the second half, his 18th of the season.
Hibs looked as if they had secured all three points but referee Alan Muir pointed to the penalty spot as Hibs defender Ryan McGivern tangled with Gary Mackay-Steven although television pictures clearly showed the offence had taken place outside the box.
Nevertheless, Johnny Russell stepped up to slot home the spot-kick, his 20th of the season.
Hibs had Gary Deegan available again after suspension, but the battling midfielder could do no better than a seat on the bench as boss Pat Fenlon opeted to go with the same starting line-up following last weekend’s win over St Mirren.
The Easter Road side had seen themselves slip from fourth place to eighth following yesterday’s results elsewhere in the SPl but their hopes of hauling themselves back into the top six were dealt an early blow thanks to an incredible blunder by Williams.
There was no danger as Claros played the ball back to his goalkeeper but former Hibs midfielder Rankin didn’t give up, chasing into the penalty area and turning his back as Williams prepared to clear. Rankin was probably as surprised as anyone when the ball crashed off him, leaving the Hibs No 1 to look on in despair as it rolled agonisingly past him and into the bottom left hand corner of his net.
Hibs managed to shake off the shock of that goal, Paul Cairney’s low shot blocked by the outstretched boot of United goalkeeper Radoslaw Cierzniak as the Tannadice outfit inexplicably began to fall out of the match. Certainly Gary Mackay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong had efforts which weren’t too far off target, but the Capital side hauled themselves level in the 27th minute.
Keith Watson’s foul on Tom Taiwo allowed Leigh Griffiths to deliver a superb free-kick which tempted Cierzniak to take a step from his line as McPake rose to glance a header goalwards. The ball may well have been over the line but Ryan McGivern arrived to make sure, thumping it emphatically into the net.
And Hibs finished the first half well on top, United skipper Jon Daly blocking a Cairney effort before Griffiths ruffled the roof of Cierzniak’s net with a dipping shot and then went even closer as he thumped an angled effort off the outside of the goalkeeper’s right hand post.
United began the second half keen to re-assert the early authority they had shown but it was their turn to be left stunned as Griffiths fired Hibs ahead with an absolutely superb strike. Picking the ball up just inside the home side’s half as Hibs broke having successfully defended a corner, Griffiths made speedy progress despite the attempts of Rankin to slow him up, the on-loan Wolves star stepped over the ball before hammering it left-footed across Cierzniak and into the far side of the net from 22 yards.
United boss Jackie McNamara wasn’t slow to make a change, replacing Richie Ryan with Barry Douglas in a move which saw the substitute take up the left back berth with Sean Dillon moving inside to allow Daly, who had been playing centre-half to his more familiar role up front.
Watson sent a glancing header over but his defensive qualities were needed when Griffiths played in Cairney, the full back’s terrific tackle preventing him from making it three for Hibs.
Armstrong went close for United, Williams pushing his header from Watson’s cross over, the injured Griffiths having made way for Eoin Doyle, as Hibs had to show their defensive qualities to hang onto that slender lead as the game moved into the last quarter of an hour.
And Hibs had to endure a nervy final few minutes in which substitute Michael Gardyne threw himself at Rankin’s cross only to see the ball graze the crossbar.
That narrow escape, however, counted for little as McGivern’s challenge on Mackay-Steven was adjudged illegal by referee Alan Muir who immediately pointed to the spot although television pictures appeared to show the offence had taken place outside the box.
Russell stepped up to slot home the spot-kick to snatch victory from Hibs.
Dundee United: Cierzniak, Watson, Daly, McLean, Dillon, Armstrong (Gardyne 78), Ryan (Douglas 58), Flood, Rankin, Mackay-Steven, Russell. Substitutes not used: Banks, Millar, Dow, Thomson, Souttar.
Hibs: Williams, Stevenson, McPake, Hanlon, McGivern, Done (Handling 86), Robertson, Claros, Taiwo, Cairney, Griffiths (Doyle 69). Substitutes not used: Murdoch, Deegan, Maybury, Caldwell, Forster.
Referee: Alan Muir.