WHILE their Highland neighbours continue to get accustomed to having a major honour around, Inverness Caledonian Thistle have relinquished their grip on the Scottish Cup. But their hands had to be prised from the old trophy.
It was a sweet night for Anthony Stokes, who should have scored a hat-trick for Hibs. But he was content with the two goals that proved just enough to overcome an Inverness side that eventually presented the considerable challenge expected.
Stokes’ return to goalscoring form came at the expense of his mentor John Hughes, who tried to sign the striker on loan from Celtic in January. While Stokes had every right to feel satisfied it was a mixed night for Mark Oxley, whose second booking of the competition for time wasting means the goalkeeper is suspended for the semi-final.
But Oxley will have grounds for some complaint since he lost a contact lens in the clash after which he was cautioned. He was eventually replaced by Otso Virtanen. The Finnish keeper managed to see-out the seven minutes of added time – though not without some nervy moments.
The late drama threatened to eclipse Stokes’ earlier contribution.
Last night provided what some might contend was overdue evidence of his worth to Hibs’ cause. Inverness’ hopes went up in a puff of Stokes after the Irish striker emerged from the icy haar that drifted in from the Moray Firth to clinch victory for the visitors.
The fog of their post League Cup final hangover has now cleared for Hibs. While their priority might be the league the Easter Road side have over a century’s worth of unfinished business in the Scottish Cup.
This was a victory to cherish given recent events. It was unquestionably hard-earned after Inverness’ strong second-half showing. The holders pulled a goal back through Iain Vigurs with 13 minutes left and spurned several other opportunities to equalise.
But how the Hibs fans celebrated at the end. While they might still feel some tenderness after Sunday’s defeat by Ross County at the national stadium Hibs can now redeem themselves there next month against Dundee United, whose manager Mixu Paatelainen was an interested spectator here.
The shift from deadlock to Hibs enjoying the comfort of a two-goal lead was sudden. But, following Inverness’ bright start, the visitors had begun to impose themselves on the proceedings.
Stokes’ goals came in a four minute burst shortly before half-time and seemed set to soothe his side’s worries. But this is Hibs we are talking about.
Their edgy, unsure start was no surprise. Hibs had lost a cup final in the last minutes of their last outing. The wounds were surely still raw, however much head coach Alan Stubbs claimed otherwise.
Showing only one change to the starting line-up who slipped to defeat to Ross County, Stubbs’ hope it seemed was to let those players who endured such agony give vent to their frustrations. It meant pairing Stokes and Jason Cummings together up front again.
The forwards were operating under greater scrutiny after a poor goals return since Stokes arrived in January. They had struck an aggregate of five goals before last night but none were scored while the other was on the pitch. Stubbs insisted he believed in the players’ ability to play together and they repaid that faith.
Stokes did so most obviously, scoring for the first time since the beginning of February. But it was significant also because Cummings was on the pitch to view it, although he had precious little to do with the goal’s construction. Nevertheless, it was at least a start to answering those who question the pair’s compatibility.
Cummings had a more pivotal part to play in Stokes’ next goal. It was his saved shot from which Stokes was able to slide in his second of the night, four minutes before half-time.
Inverness, while struggling in the league, presented the toughest of physical tests. They were also buoyed by the return of skipper Richie Foran. Not many players make their first start of the season in March but that tells the story of his injury struggles, which stretch back as far as last season.
Foran battled on manfully and looked menacing in the opening stages, when little had anticipated Hibs’ eventual superiority. Lewis Horner rifled one early chance over the bar after Foran had made a nuisance of himself in the box.
But Hibs then began to impose themselves. Stokes showed a glimpse of his undoubted class when setting himself to strike on goal after Lewis Stevenson’s cross. He moved back a step before unleashing a right foot shot into the corner of Owain Fon Williams’ goal after 36 minutes.
His second, four minutes later, was equally instinctive as he slid in to convert after Cummings’ shot was saved by Fon Williams and following good work down the right by Liam Henderson.
But Inverness should have retrieved the deficit in a second half in which they scored once and might have had three goals. Their sole goal, with 13 minutes left, roused the Caley Stadium. Iain Vigurs drove in after he was left unmarked at the far post after Hibs failed to clear two successive crosses.
Carl Tremarco had missed from a similar area early shortly after half-time while only Liam Hughes will know how he managed to stub a shot over the bar from the edge of the six-yard box after Forlan’s cross.
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