They’d taken their indomitability to a fabled 67 games – Celtic’s favourite number – but many had wondered if this might be the day when the unbeaten record would finally end.
And in the second minute of added-on time Hibernian’s Oli Shaw found the ball at his feet and fame rearing up at him. With Craig Gordon nowhere, he shot for goal. The sell-out crowd, who’d witnessed another electric encounter between these teams, held its breath. And then Mikael Lustig stuck out a leg to block the shot and save the day.
This was the closest any side have come to stripping Celtic of their Invincibles tag. The champions will wonder how they didn’t win a match in when, at two-nil, they were threatening to run riot. But just as he’d done in the Betfred Cup semi-final, the 19-year-old Shaw rose from the bench to add vim to Hibs’ efforts. Brendan Rodgers’ men remain the team to beat, but only just.
This always looked like an intriguing game, all the more so after it came to light in the build-up that for the last league meeting, Neil Lennon changed his tactics five minutes before kick-off after learning something to his advantage about Celtic during the warm-up.
Warm-up was a misnomer yesterday. The early kick-off meant the pitch was denied the low winter sun and frost covered much of it. The footing of the players was sure, though, and John McGinn was aggrieved by the first contentious decision – referee John Beaton’s award of a foul for what looked a clean tackle on Scott Brown.
Key to the contest looked like being the central midfield battle between this pair - the master and the “bully”, as McGinn jokingly referred to the Celtic captain beforehand, and the heir apparent for Scotland and who knows maybe in green-and-white hoops as well.
McGinn was the star-turn when the teams last met in the league, cracking two unstoppable shots which put Hibs within ten minutes of victory. Their every clash yesterday was keenly watched but it was another midfielder who almost provided the breakthrough - for the opposing team. Dylan McGeough attempted a pass across the edge of his box which James Forrest intercepted. It seemed certain the winger would score but he screwed his shot past the post.
Hibs’ best openings either side of that one both fell to their speedster on the right, Martin Boyle. The second of them was a clear sight of goal. Boyle’s joust with Kieran Tierney was just as engrossing and the Celtic man, perhaps remembering how Boyle’s pace had enabled Hibs to force their way back into the Betfred semi, stood off the winger to allow him to get a shot on target but Craig Gordon saved. The bulk of the forward movements, though, were being made by Celtic for whom Scott Sinclair’s pace was causing problems for Steven Whittaker. The full-back was reduced to attempting another risky square ball across his backline to relieve the pressure. Nothing came of that but Mikael Lustig and Odsonne Edouard had opportunities and like Forrest earlier would have wanted to do better with them.
The duel between Brown and McGinn was indeed fascinating. On one occasion the Celtic man dragged the young pretender out wide, then with him out of position, alerted his team-mates to the hole and how they should best use it. But McGinn wouldn’t be cowed and later when he used his strength to bounce Brown away the home stands roared.
Right away there was a buccaneering thrust to the second half which seemed certain to produce goals. McGinn forgot about Brown to charge around in a more advanced position but it would be Celtic who’d have the best opportunity in the 56th minute. Once again Sinclair got the better of Whittaker but the striker’s lack of confidence in his work was again evident and Ofir Marciano saved. The ball rebounded to Tierney who was thwarted by Efe Ambrose.
But Celtic wouldn’t be denied. Two minutes later a low cross from Sinclair on the left squirted through to Edouard whose effort struck a post. The ball cannoned back to Sinclair and this time he couldn’t miss.
What was that about form loss? In the 63rd minute Hibs thought they’d earned a free-kick for Dedryck Boyata’s challenge on Boyle. The referee ignored the claim and Callum McGregor sprinted upfield and fed Sinclair who danced across the 18-yard line with the Hibs players reluctant to tackle him. His shot took a deflection off Ambrose, wrong-footing Marciano and Celtic were in complete control.
A word Lennon used before the game about this Celtic side – “imperious” – seemed relevant again. They fancied another goal and it was Brown, turning up in the kind of advanced position which was more his style when he was a Hibee, who craved it as much as anyone.
Hibs tried to rally and Brandon Barker ran the length of the field to send over a cross which seemed destined for Anthony Stokes and a tap-in. Who got back to retrieve the situation? Brown.
But with 15 minutes remaining Hibs began the comeback. A short corner allowed McGinn to pick out Whittaker and when his effort was blocked Ambrose claimed the goal, his shot bouncing off Lustig.
Hibs had lived dangerously and could have fallen further behind but incredibly they were level three minutes later. A delicious pass from Stokes fed Lewis Stevenson who surged into the box for substitute Shaw to spin and shoot home.