Rangers’ unlikely title hopes remain very much alive. If earning three points in slightly fortuitous manner is the mark of champions, then who knows?
All Hibs are aware is that they were left with nothing at the end of an engrossing night. The second crowd of over 20,000 at Easter Road inside four days watched a frantic game that somehow slipped from the home side’s grasp in a disastrous three-minute spell at the end of the first-half.
Lewis Stevenson’s early opener prepared the way for Hibs, who were then frustrated by a combination of bad luck, poor finishing and questionable refereeing. Rangers made the most of these circumstances, scoring a pair of well-taken goals through Josh Windass and Alfredo Morelos at the end of the first-half to secure all three points and maintain their status as Celtic’s nearest challengers.
It was a tale of what might have been for Hibs. Substitute Brandon Barker saw two shots bash back off posts in the space of ten second-half minutes and watched another one fly just over.
Neil Lennon had to be spoken to once by Kevin Clancy, much to the delight of the visiting fans. The Hibs manager’s mood wasn’t improved by having a penalty appeal ignored by the referee. Clancy did seem to pause after the ball appeared to have off Rangers substitute David Bates’ hand as opposed to chest as the defender clearly intended when dealing with Efe Ambrose’s cross.
Hibs coped with a strong opening spell from Rangers to strike quickly and decisively after just nine minutes through Stevenson, an unlikely scorer if ever there was. He has scored once in his last two seasons and this was his first of the current campaign.
Hibs then proceeded to spurn further opportunities to establish a commanding lead. Paul Hanlon was another who found himself in an usually advanced position. Unlike Stevenson, who was helped by a deflection off Alves, the defender was unable to bypass Wes Foderingham, who saved well.
The Rangers goalkeeper again excelled when blocking Boyle’s shot after Oli Shaw’s angled pass inside Declan Jon. Boyle will know he should have done better.
But it was encouraging from Hibs’ point of view. They threatened to sweep Rangers away and were continuing where they left off against Celtic on Sunday. It’s just that this time, nothing of worth was recovered.
Lennon rewarded Shaw, who scored the Easter Road side’s equaliser against the champions four days ago and came close to grabbing a winner, with a start. Shaw supplemented Hibs’ already healthy attacking options, joining Simon Murray and the slightly deeper lying Anthony Stokes up front.
And if Boyle, another star performer against Celtic, was playing wing-back, then it was a particularly advanced variation of this position.
Not that Rangers were on a mission simply to try to contain the hosts. Eyeing a fourth successive victory, Graeme Murty’s team looked designed to cause Hibs some problems at the back. Ross McCrorie returned to offer the back four some protection. But by playing Kenny Miller, Josh Windass and Alfredo Morelos, Rangers were more than capable of scoring – as was proved twice over.
Murty did not even allow Miller’s unfortunate hamstring strain, picked up soon after Hibs opened the scoring, to derail his intentions. The caretaker Ibrox manager replaced the striker with Daniel Candeias, Josh Windass shifting to the left.
The pain Miller felt can only have been compounded by the slightly embarrassing way in which he sustained the injury. Dylan McGeouch’s clever flick completely wrong-footed the striker and sent him crashing to the turf in front of the Hibs main stand. Many home supporters sportingly applauded the former Hibs player when he was stretchered off.
These fans were already in good cheer following Stevenson’s intervention. The wing-back was the architect of his own goal but Murray was facilitator, running in behind the slow- to-react Bruno Alves to latch on to Stevenson’s long ball. He then transferred it back to Stevenson, whose shot flicked off Alves and evaded Foderingham.
But Rangers are becoming ever more resilient. As against Ross County on Saturday, when they also lost an early goal, they overturned the tables. But they took far less time to do so on this occasion. In striking twice in three minutes at the end of the first-half, they took the wind from Hibs’ sails.
The thought of going in at half-time having been pinned back was difficult enough to process for the home supporters. But to see their team heading down the tunnel in order to hear Lennon’s instructions about how to get back into the game was a wretched development.
There was no consolation that Rangers’ goals were both well-hit. Nevertheless, goalkeeper Ofir Marciano won’t want to see either of them again.
Windass picked up Jason Holt’s through ball and sent a precise left-foot shot into the far corner past Marciano, who had shown too much of his goal to aim at. Worse was to follow for Hibs. On the stroke of half-time Morelos turned Hanlon inside out while tight to the goal line and thundered a shot past Marciano, who was beaten inside his near post.