The season-long game of tit for tat looks like it will go to the wire as Hibs collected another hard-earned three points against Kilmarnock to match Aberdeen’s return the night before. It is now over to Rangers to see if they can deal with the pressure being exerted in the marathon chase for second place.
In a pulsating and breathless encounter at Easter Road, correctly described by the victorious manager as a ‘humdinger’, the home side rolled with the punches and while Killie kept swinging, Neil Lennon’s men proved once again that they have the heart and the artistry needed to come out on top.
As a precursor to next weekend’s vital head to head at Pittodrie, this was another massive confidence boost for the Leith side. Currently in fourth place, three points behind Derek McInnes’ side, and trailing Rangers, who play Celtic on Sunday, on goal difference, the musing is where they could have been sitting had they proved this prolific in front of goal all season.
It is not that chances weren’t being crafted, they were, but it is only since January, with the arrival of Florian Kamberi, Jamie Maclaren and Scott Allan that they have regularly engineered an end product.
They did that perfectly against a Kilmarnock team who were a match in many ways and refused to accept defeat until Brandon Barker displayed some individual brilliance to wrap up a mazy stoppage time run by tucking his side’s fifth goal into the net. It was only then that anyone could have been truly confident of the outcome.
Both sides paid compliment to the other after the final whistle, the mutual respect well-earned on a day when the play raged from end to end, with both sides demonstrating good link up play, visionary passing and a willingness to run at opponents, full of belief in their ability to bypass any obstacle.
It made for an enthralling afternoon and was a display worthy of two of the teams of this term. Not that everyone was happy.
The Kilmarnock manager couldn’t fault his players but he did take issue with the officials’ performance, venting his frustration at the interval, after two first half penalty shouts were ignored by referee Don Robertson, and, instead of a satisfactory explanation, he was instead instructed to see out the remainder of the contest from the stand.
The first, in the sixth minute, seemed a valid claim, as Darren McGregor felled Jordan Jones, but the second, in the 24th minute, looked less convincing, as Lewis Stevenson out-muscled Stephen O’Donnell.
But the fact that Hibs broke the deadlock just five minutes later probably acerbated the angst.
The goal was courtesy of Scott Allan, who linked up with Florian Kamberi, and held his nerve when the striker played him in, finishing with a strike across Leo Fasan and into the net.
The swift response from Kilmarnock served as an early indication of how things would go, with both teams insisting that anything one could do, the other could do even better, or, at the very least, just as well.
In the 33rd minute Jones sent in a cross and Kris Boyd claimed his 22 goal of the season, despite a wee suspicion of offside.
If the first half was captivating, the second raised the bar a few notches.
In the 53rd minute, John McGinn sent in an exquisite angled crossfield ball and Steven Whittaker, coming in deep at the back post directed it expertly past Fasan with his first touch.
Eight minutes later, Jones provided the assist, cutting back for Stuart Findlay to level things once again.
There was no let up, though, and it took only three more minutes for Hibs to edge ahead for the third time. Getting on the end of another McGinn cross, Maclaren stroked home from close range. This time they extended that lead, adding a fourth in the 76th minute. A lovely reverse pass from Allan did the damage, playing in Kamberi who slotted the ball through the keeper’s legs.
Kilmarnock were down but refused to be counted out, reducing the deficit in the 80th minute, when Boyd sent a scorching freekick past Ofir Marciano from 30 yards out.
At that stage the game was still anyone’s. But then substitute Barker went on his run, sealing the win and ensuring the chase for second remains as enthralling as ever.