Dundee United 3 - 0 Hibernian: Dundee United top maiden league table on goal difference
NEW season, same old Hibernian. While the Scottish Premier League table makes pleasant viewing for Dundee United supporters this morning, their team’s comprehensive victory taking them to the top of the maiden table on goal difference, they will also reflect that they will seldom face more abject opponents.
As a first step on the recovery programme Hibs must undertake after their pitiful Scottish Cup final defeat in May, this was more relapse than rehab for Pat Fenlon and his players. Fortunate to only be 1-0 down at half-time to Johnny Russell’s early goal, the Easter Road men received their just desserts for a limp performance when Jon Daly and Michael Gardyne added to United’s tally in the closing stages.
Hibs fans must already be dreading next Sunday’s home derby against Hearts. On this evidence, the prospect of Fenlon’s team gaining any measure of revenge for their 5-1 Hampden humbling by their city rivals seems extremely remote.
In what was a torrid opening to the match for Hibs, they could have fallen behind even before Russell’s third-minute strike. United, on the front foot from the start, had a strong appeal for a penalty waved aside after just 90 seconds.
David Stephens, partnering James McPake in central defence for the visitors, was short with a headed pass back to goalkeeper Ben Williams who had to race from his line to try and beat Russell to the ball. Williams appeared to foul the United striker as he did so but referee Craig Thomson turned a deaf ear to home claims for a spot kick.
The Hibs supporters, who had jeered Thomson from kick-off amid their residual bitterness over the official’s part in the Scottish Cup final humiliation, were quickly reminded that the performance of match officials is the least of their worries.
Their team were duly torn asunder in defence once more as United made their breakthrough. It was an admirably constructed goal from Houston’s team, originating from Sean Dillon’s cross-field pass to find overlapping full-back Barry Douglas down the left. His cross into the penalty area was nodded back by Daly to John Rankin who duly shuttled the ball into Russell’s feet on the corner of the six-yard box. Russell turned smartly and slammed a firm low shot beyond Williams into the corner of the net.
United, playing with a pace and cohesion that was in the sharpest possible contrast to Hibs’ leaden-footed start to the contest, threatened to double their lead five minutes later. Russell found space to drive in a shot from the edge of the penalty area, which Williams, Hibs’ summer recruit from Colchester United, looked less than convincing in dealing with as he diverted the ball over for a corner.
Leigh Griffiths, deployed as a lone striker, produced Hibs’ first menacing moment of the afternoon when he dug out a shot from 16 yards despite the close attention of the United defence but the deflected effort was comfortably held by home goalkeeper Radoslaw Cierzniak.
Fenlon’s formation was presumably designed with the intention of Griffiths receiving support from the advanced midfield trio of Ivan Sproule, David Wotherspoon and Eoin Doyle, but they were losing the engine room battle to United’s central pair of John Rankin and Richie Ryan.
Gary Mackay-Steven, whose turn of foot and trickery was causing the Hibs defence all manner of anxiety, flashed a 25-yard shot narrowly wide of Williams’ left-hand post as United continued to control the tempo and momentum of the match.
Whenever Hibs did manage to break the pattern, they completely lacked conviction in the attacking third of the pitch. Sproule typified that when, after being released through the middle by the industrious Griffiths, he took the ball too wide and then drove it harmlessly across the United goal mouth. The only consolation Fenlon could take from his team’s first-half display was that they only found themselves one goal behind, a state of affairs preserved ten minutes before the interval by Williams’ reaction save to keep out Daly’s close-range header from Keith Watson’s cross.
United were forced into a change at the start of the second half, Brian McLean replacing Dillon in central defence, but it did little to alter the general flow of play towards Hibs’ half of the pitch.
Russell passed up a glorious chance to make it 2-0 in the 51st minute, dragging a left-foot shot wide from about eight yards after latching onto Mackay-Steven’s terrific pass, and Houston’s sole concern at this stage would be his team’s failure to capitalise on their dominance.
But although United needed a brilliantly timed penalty box intervention from McLean to deny Paul Cairney a clear shooting chance in a rare Hibs attack, they did finally find the second goal and cushion they merited with 16 minutes remaining.
The Hibs defence was caught ball watching as Mackay-Steven took possession on the right of the penalty area and his fierce cross was directed into the roof of the net by Daly’s close range diving header. Some Hibs supporters had already seen enough and began heading for the exits.
They were spared the sight of their team’s defence parting easily again in extra time as United substitute Michael Gardyne raced clear and marked his debut with a goal, slamming a right-foot shot beyond the helpless Williams.
Dundee United: Cierzniak, Watson, Dillon (McLean 46), Gunning, Douglas; Flood, Ryan, Rankin, Mackay-Steven (Armstrong 80); Russell (Gardyne 77), Daly. Subs not used: Banks, Millar, Dow, Robertson.
Hibernian: Williams, Clancy, Stephens, McPake (O’Hanlon 90), Hanlon; Cairney, Stevenson (Handling 59); Sproule (Caldwell 75), Wotherspoon, Doyle; Griffiths. Subs not used: Antell, Booth, Claros, Kujabi.