Last season Jack Ross’ men finished third in the cinch Premiership as they and Aberdeen tore away from the chasing pack, but with their run to the Premier Sports Cup final and a Covid-19 outbreak forcing postponements and a fixture pile-up, Hibs are the team doing the hunting.
Motherwell, in fifth place, are one of their prey, but Hibs failed to pick them off here at Easter Road, drawing 1-1 with the Steelmen after Tony Watt cancelled out Kevin Nisbet’s opener.
The result, coupled with Aberdeen’s 4-1 win over St Mirren, means Hibs are out of the top six. Lying in seventh place, they are six points behind Motherwell, while Aberdeen have moved two points clear of them in sixth. Third-placed Hearts are eight points clear and while Hibs have games in hand over all of their rivals, it’s the points on the board that count.
A win here would’ve given Hibs such a shot in the arm. They have only taken four points from their past seven league matches and are on the worst run of form under Ross. The boos rang out from the home fans at full time, a support clearly disgruntled with fortunes in the league. Hibs’ place at Hampden later this month and the 3-1 victory over Rangers that got them there are taking some of the heat off Ross’ neck.
Hibs didn’t deserve to win this encounter. They have the personnel to finish third but just aren’t quite clicking. They missed a number of good chances here, but so did Motherwell, who would have been out of sight by the half-hour mark had they been sharper with their shooting.
Motherwell look like a team ready to fight for a place in the top six. Deployed in a 4-3-3 formation by manager Graham Alexander, they do the basics well and have a bit of stardust up front. Their man of the moment is Watt, the league’s top goalscorer with nine strikes now. His equaliser on the hour-mark was an excellent finish, but he had chances in the opening period and was hugely disappointed not to have scored when he sent a header over the bar from close range.
“I should have done better,” said Watt afterwards. “I saw it coming down and I was shouting to myself, keep it down, keep it down. I don’t know if I misjudged the flight of the ball but I was telling myself to do the right thing and I did the wrong thing.
“That is the thing about being a striker, you miss the chances but as long as you are there to take one, that is fine.”
Motherwell came into this game with only one recognised centre-half to choose from, but they didn't appear to miss Juhani Ojala or Sondre Solholm too much. Bevis Mugabi held the centre of defence together and Rickie Lamie – normally a full-back – did a good job partnering him until injury got the better of him.
They weren’t tested often in the first half-hour, with Motherwell having the best of the chances. Kevin van Veen probably would have scored on six minutes had Paul McGinn not put in a goal-saving challenge, while Paul Hanlon did the same to Watt. Dean Cornelius missed a one-on-one with Matt Macey before Watt’s header, which came on the back of the same player's effort being beaten away by the goalkeeper.
It was therefore entirely predictable that Hibs would draw first blood on 33 minutes. It owed to a great piece of vision from Josh Campbell, who moments earlier had failed with a pass that would have sent Chris Cadden through on goal. This time, the 21-year-old midfielder was bang on the money, his inswinging left-footed cross taking out the Motherwell backline and landing plum in the path of Nisbet. The Scotland striker met the ball on the volley, leaving Liam Kelly with no chance to open the scoring.
Motherwell felt aggrieved to go in at half time a goal behind and Hibs started the second period brighter without ever looking totally in control of the match. Alexander changed his front-line with the introduction of Jordan Roberts for Kaiyne Woolery and his movement and pace caused issues for Hibs.
On the hour mark, Hibs failed to properly clear a ball from Roberts into the box and the ball landed at Watt. His low, first-time effort was not easy, but it skidded along the wet surface and found the net via Macey’s right-hand post.
Hibs tried to rally, throwing on Christian Doidge and Jamie Murphy to bolster their attack. They came close to regaining the lead when Nisbet’s shot was blocked on the line and then Campbell’s effort hit the inside of the bar and bounced out, but their most presentable opportunity came two minutes from the end when Campbell’s low cross found Nisbet in the box, but his shot on the turn was too close to Kelly and he held.
Hibs’ recent form bears the hallmarks of a team fighting relegation, not challenging at the top end of the table. They face Livingston and St Mirren away and Dundee at home – that trio are in the bottom six – before the cup final against Celtic. This Hibs team is not a bad one, but results need to turn quickly in this ultra-competitive division to avoid a winter of discontent.