A team in green and white on a mission to complete a phenomenal season. It’s not often such a tagline could relegate Celtic to secondary status. Hibernian, though, did that in swashbuckling fashion as they lanced the prospects of a title party for Brendan Rodgers’ side at Easter Road.
Neil Lennon’s men were dashing, daring and driven as they claimed a victory that their efforts over the season against the champions-elect have warranted. To see Celtic as vulnerable and diminished as they were at times yesterday – in such contrast to their lording it against Rangers the previous weekend – could make you wonder why more teams do not play with such intent and intensity against them.
The fact is, though, that few Scottish teams can muster the sort of musketeers from within their ranks that the Leith club can let loose on Celtic. With such as Dylan McGeouch and John McGinn carrying the charge, Hibs bow to no opponent over a willingness to push on to the front foot and force play. Lennon asked that of all his men yesterday, and got it, with interest, to unnerve visitors reduced to an unaccustomed domestic passivity.
The victory, which follows two thrilling draws against Rodgers’ men and extends Hibs’ recent run to one defeat in 16 games, is precisely why they now have every chance of edging out Rangers and Aberdeen for second place. These clubs have to visit both Easter Road and Celtic Park during their final four fixtures. The remarkable achievement of claiming runners-up in the top flight to which they have just returned is firmly within their grasp.
They were ravenous in their pursuit of such a scenario against a Celtic team who could now be afforded the opportunity to confirm their seventh straight title at home to Rangers next Sunday. Indeed, Hibs’ ability to bring Rodgers’ team to heel was all the more creditable because they did so without on-loan Celtic midfielder Scott Allan and the injured Darren McGregor, two players pivotal in their push for a final placing that would have seemed fanciful when the campaign began last August.
The tone for the afternoon was set inside only three minutes when McGeouch intercepted a Tom Rogic pass and released Florian Kamberi, who found his way through gaps left at the back by central defensive pairing Dedryck Boyata and Kristoffer Ajer. Craig Gordon was equal to the low effort of the Swiss striker but Hibs had signalled their thrusting approach.
Lennon said afterwards this revolved around preventing Scott Brown “dictating play”, as he had in the 4-0 semi-final win over Rangers, through getting “in his face” to “take the ball off him” and “pressing aggressively within the laws of the game”.
Their ability to unsettle Celtic with this strategy was epitomised in the 24th-minute opener. A weak clearing header by Rogic was seized upon by McGinn, who zipped the ball forward to Lewis Stevenson on the left. With Celtic’s rearguard caught out of position, the full-back fired over a low cross that Jamie Maclaren was able to knock in from barely two yards with no opponent within challenging distance of him.
Gordon had to produce a couple of decent blocks, as did Ofir Marciano in the home goal, before Hibs struck the decisive blow with ten minutes of regulation time remaining. Again, Celtic comprehensively failed to deal with a quick-fire cross delivered into their box, this time from the boot of Kamberi positioned wide on the right. This was met by the header of substitute Vykintas Slivka, who glanced the ball in from close range.
In that instant Celtic’s hopes of securing the three points that would take them over the Premiership finish line evaporated but they produced a valiant late rally in their bid to avoid their third domestic defeat of the season. In the 87th minute they succeeded in reducing the deficit when substitutes Scott Sinclair and Odsonne Eduoard combined to allow the Frenchman to dart through on goal and produce a slick finish but Celtic never looked like crafting a second to deny Hibs their deserved spoils from a pulsating afternoon.