Where Hibs fell short at Tannadice as Dundee United breathe life into survival bid
A man that was last seen trying to escape over an advertising board the last time he faced Hibs, as Aberdeen boss, when his term in charge at Pittodrie was voided following a 6-0 mauling, this time the outcome was far more satisfying.
Still stuck at the foot of the Premiership, the victory over the travelling Easter Road side saw them close the gap on second bottom Ross County to two points.
The side’s first league win since January 2, Goodwin’s maiden win as Dundee United manager and only his second in the SPFL since the World Cup, it offered signs, in terms of fitness and character, that suggests the relegation fight has not yet delivered its knock-out blow.
For Hibs, though, it sets the stage for a fascinating capital derby, one in which the home side will have to reverse recent fortunes, having not defeated their Edinburgh rivals since 2019.
The frustration for Johnson is that both teams now go into the tussle in ropey form. Hibs are well aware that they have now passed up two chances to capitalise on Hearts slips, two games that could have taken them ahead of the Gorgie outfit prior to that match.
Having been so profligate last weekend, the game against Dundee United was a chance to bounce back and still put themselves in a position where they could leapfrog Hearts with a head-to-head triumph next weekend.
It all started so promisingly as well when Chris Cadden nipped infield to steal possession, and linked up with Josh Campbell and Joe Newell - making his first start since early February - who then drove forward and played in Harry McKirdy. His cross looked goalbound as it found Kevin Nisbet a yard or so from goal but it bounced off the Scotland striker and went wide when it looked virtually impossible to miss.
At that point there was just a minute on the clock and set the tone, with Hibs having the most territory and the most possession as the game played out. But it was the hosts who had the clinical edge and, with the hiked up fitness and intensity levels, thanks to Goodwin’s additional workouts, and a belief that belies their league standing, they were able to make that count.
The fact they were able to get the breakthrough so early in the game, will have helped.
Chris Cadden’s value is in galloping forward but defensively he was exposed by a rampant Aziz Behich, who tore up and down the left wing. The Hibs defender gave him too much space in the eighth minute and Steven Fletcher directed his cross beyond David Marshall with a powerful and well-directed header.
It was the former Hibs striker’s 50th goal in the Scottish top tier - having kick-started his goal exploits all those years ago with a goal for the Leith side against Dundee United.
Hibs greater possession helped keep the pressure off the visiting backline for long spells, which was probably as well as they struggled against tenacious and hard-working wingers, and craved the experience of the injured Paul Hanlon in the middle. The wide men were not helped by the wide attackers, with Elie Youan nowhere near his best and McKirdy an effervescent presence but not always the most disciplined when it came to tracking runners and helping Cadden.
But it was an improved performance, technically and tactically, compared to the one thrown up last weekend and maybe would have reaped greater reward had they made better use of their 65 per cent possession. But despite manufacturing 14 shots, only three of them were on target. Some of that was down to some solid United defending, but they will kick themselves, too.
Nisbet missed chances to get into better positions and to finish when he did, although the woodwork denied him from a wonderful second-half set-piece strike and Elie Youan squandered an opening late on when the frontman did provide the ammunition.
Having got the opener, Dundee United almost made it two but substitute Ilmari Niskanen was denied and Hibs headed up the other end where the freshly-introduced Mykola Kukharevych sent a scorching strike past Mark Birighitti.
“We controlled the game in the first half, certainly in the middle third - we didn't have enough action in the final third outside the first ten minutes,” said Johnson. “Then they scored and they had something to hold onto. I was quite pleased with the patience; even though there was a bit of frustration I felt we were doing enough to tire them out.
"We then changed it up; we brought Mykola Kukharevych on and went a little bit more direct and it caused a few problems. We had chances.”
That quick response to Niskanen’s effort could have cowed the hosts, but it remained a match which could have gone either way right up until the dying moments, when Fletcher made his experience count and lured youngster Will Fish into an unnecessary and ill-executed challenge inside the box.
It gave Jamie McGrath the chance to send Marshall the wrong way with a penalty that was so calmly dispatched, it betrayed nothing of its importance.
“I’m always very calm when Jamie is in those situations,” revealed Goodwin. “I’ve watched him doing it for years when I had him at St Mirren. There is nobody better to have, as a manager, in that situation than Jamie. He has a very cool head and ice in his veins.
“It was very much a game of risk and reward for us today. We had to take risks because we have to go and try to win every game, it’s as simple as that.”
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