Of course, Motherwell won’t concede defeat just yet but realistically this was one they needed to win if they wanted to oust Hibs and assure their place in the top six.
Instead, having done so well to get themselves into the position where they could have leapfrogged the Easter Road side and tested them in the very first minute, they ultimately came up against a team who not only wanted it just as badly as their guests but also had the creative ability to make and take chances and the level of game management needed to then keep Motherwell at bay and see out the game.
It was a mature and assured performance from Hibs, who have a five-point gap on the Fir Park side and can now turn their attentions to catching the teams above them.
The fact the side closest to them in the standings are city rivals Hearts will only serve to incentivise the squad further, according to manager Paul Heckingbottom, who has overseen a volte face in fortunes since arriving last month.
“The lads are looking at Hearts as well, they have just seen the result in there,” he said of Hearts’ defeat to Hamilton which leaves them just two points ahead, with the next capital derby looming.
“Listen, those games don’t define where you finish in the league but they are better games when there is something riding on them. Everyone enjoys it better, myself on the sideline, the players on the pitch and the fans in the stand. But they are just the next team in front of us, whoever it is we just want to try and catch them.”
The Leith side are certainly the team with momentum. Since the new gaffer’s arrival that is four wins and a draw in the league, his only defeat in the Scottish Cup quarter-final, but it is the standard of performance that has been heartening for the manager and the support, Hibs showing the grit and organisational nous needed to weather what opponents chuck at them and the verve and speed of thought to counter.
Yet they almost shot themselves in the foot in the opening minute when David Gray was scorched by the pace of Gboly Ariyibi and the Motherwell wide man zipped a low ball across the face of goal. Under pressure at the back post, Lewis Stevenson tried to play the ball out for a corner but crashed it off the post and the home side were lucky that the rebound evaded the Motherwell frontmen.
Hibs were quick to retaliate and in a breathless start to the match Stevie Mallan had a crack from distance which forced a save from Mark Gillespie, while Marc McNulty hit the side netting. But the striker, who has made a massive impact since joining Hibs and been rewarded with a Scotland call, again proved his worth, combining with Daryl Horgan well throughout the match.
McNulty was denied by Gillespie when he should have done better with a header from a Horgan chip into the box in the tenth minute but he did give the home side the opener in the 19th minute. Horgan had again troubled Motherwell with some direct running and when he cut the ball back, McNulty’s first-time effort was blocked by Tom Aldred’s arm. The Motherwell man was booked and McNulty punished him further by blasting the resultant spot-kick into the net.
Gray picked up an injury at the same time as a booking, in the 32nd minute, and looked to be struggling but still found enough in his legs to dash across goal in the 39th minute to glance home a Mallan corner and give the home side an advantage they never looked like relinquishing.
When Gray hobbled off early in the second half, Hibs were forced into another defensive shuffle. Darren McGregor’s suspension had forced them to start with Mark Milligan alongside Paul Hanlon at centre-back and Stevenson then had to move to right-back to accommodate young Sean Mackie on the left.
But despite that, they were able to nullify Motherwell, who had plenty of possession in the second half and poked and prodded but were unable to find a way past an organised and determined Hibs side. The hosts had to weather a slight storm in the final minutes, with Motherwell’s best chance falling to sub Danny Johnson, but they never looked in danger of being blown away.
“The first minute and the last minute summed it up today,” said Motherwell boss Stephen Robinson after his 100th game at the helm. “The ball hits the post and comes back off Jake when it’s a tap-in and then Danny has a great chance but it ricochets back off himself three or four yards from goal.”