INVERNESS CT 2
Niculae 42, 80
THAT'S three league wins on the trot for Caley Thistle and three clean sheets into the bargain. Meanwhile, Hibs have still to overcome their Highland hoodoo by winning in Inverness.
Craig Brewster's side did enough to deserve the points - although their opponents thought they had done enough to equalise when Clayton Donaldson appeared to be hauled back by Phil McGuire, but still managed to have a crack, his shot hammering downwards off the crossbar. The Hibs players and fans thought it was in, but Kenny Clark and his assistant felt differently.
"We scored a wonderful equaliser," said Hibs manager John Collins after watching a replay. "Unfortunately the referee thought otherwise. He's made a mistake. It was a key point in the game. We had them on the back foot. Clayton got pulled at the edge of the box. We thought it would be a penalty or a goal. We got neither. It wasn't just over the line. It was a good bit over the line. But there's no point moaning. We'll just have to take it on the chin."
Before and after The Goal That Wasn't, Marius Niculae found the net for Inverness. He had not netted at all in this division up until yesterday. "He's come from a different football culture and adapted really quickly," said Brewster of the Romanian striker. "The only thing he hadn't done was score in the league." Well now he has.
Brewster reflected on a strong team performance and acknowledged the slice of luck that went with it. "It's very pleasing. I'm delighted to send the fans home happy after another win over a very good team. We rode our luck at times. Michael Fraser had a great save in the first-half from Steven Fletcher. When they hit the bar, we were fortunate then, but we caused them problems too."
Hibs had the first direct attempt on goal, David Murphy's curled free-kick landing in the hands of home keeper Fraser. The early exchanges were lively rather than stylish and the visitors looked marginally more dangerous. McGuire was the first name in Clark's book, the referee rightly cautioning the defender for a clumsy challenge on Donaldson. Hibs striker Fletcher was then in a great position inside the box to tee-up Donaldson, but the cross was lacking, and the chance was gone.
Roy McBain embarked on an adventurous run with the ball but this did not amount to much. Filipe Morais fired in a fantastic centre from the right for Hibs, but there was no team-mate on the end of it.
It looked as if Fletcher was going to send Hibs in front when Lewis Stevenson threaded a through-ball to the big marksman. Instead, Fraser stood firm and blocked the drive, at close-range.
As a contest, this got better and better and John Rankin caught the eye when he found Yves Makalamby straying from his goal-line. With no hesitation, Rankin shot for glory. The ball travelled 35 yards, dipping and closing in on its target but, just in time, the keeper recovered and saved any embarrassment, though he'd received a nasty fright.
Another first-half opportunity fell to Niculae in a crowded Hibs box but the goalkeeper repelled the shot and the game remained goalless if not lifeless. It remained goalless until three minutes before the break when Rankin's ball over the Hibs defence spelled trouble for the visitors. Niculae latched on to it, Makalamby scrambled out of his area, to try to deal with the emergency, and Niculae lobbed him, the home support roaring as the ball landed in the unguarded net.
Hibs wanted back in this match and shortly after the interval Donaldson ghosted in to nick a clever shot just wide of the right-hand post. Inverness giving the ball away deep in their own half only served to encourage Hibs who were shooting towards the small band of Hibs fans who had bothered to make the journey north for this wintry encounter.
Rankin tried a repeat of his first-half trick, this time shooting from even further out. He wasn't far away either. Neither was Donaldson when he turned McGuire in the Inverness box, but the Hibs forward could not find the angle to outfox Fraser. It was mostly Hibs at this point and substitute Alan O'Brien sent in a great cross and Brian Kerr's drive was saved by the legs of the Inverness custodian who was now seeing much more of the ball.
Then came the real drama and Hibs thought they had equalised. Donaldson was jostling with the Inverness defenders and when he somehow shaped himself to let fly, the ball beat the goalkeeper but crashed off the crossbar. The Hibs fans behind the goals jumped in the belief that the ball had crossed the line but it was not given and the Highlanders were relieved.
In response, Inverness tried to extend their lead, sub Graham Bayne setting up Ian Black who unleashed a fizzing effort that did not quite have the accuracy. Yet, soon after that, the home side did bag goal number two. Niculae's initial shot was cleared off the line by Darren McCormack but the ball returned to the striker who made sure of it second time round, ramming it low into the Hibs net. Niculae then was booked for over-celebrating.
As Hibs thrust forward with increasing desperation, Inverness sought to catch them out on the break. The game was now being played at a pulsating pace. Rankin made a bee-line for the box and found space to bend a shot towards the corner of the Hibs net but it went just wide.
The visiting fans were heading for the exits. A Fletcher header looked goal-bound but was deflected for a corner to Hibs. Niculae nearly nicked his hat-trick with an almost precise pile-driver. The final whistle sounded and the home fans applauded, warming themselves up in the process.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Hard to see past the bold and effective Marius Niculae, whose deadly double did for Hibs and delivered three points to Inverness.
ASIDE: What a pleasure it was sharing the train journey north with those Hibs fans. They were never in danger of going thirsty.