After Friday night’s minor setback in Dingwall, Hibernian manager Neil Lennon said he had been happy with the performance, despite the fact the goals had not come and it ultimately cost them in the penalty shootout. But discussing the overall display he had spoken of the gulf between the newly-promoted Leith side and their Highland counterparts.
The gulf was even more evident at Easter Road last night, on paper and on the pitch, as they toyed with last season’s League Two champions, Arbroath.
From the first minute of the game, when they swarmed forward en masse to panic the visiting defence, they enjoyed the majority of possession and carved out more than enough scoring opportunities to rack up a sizeable lead. But with the clock edging towards the half-time interval, the frustration for the home fans and players was the fact they had only managed a one-goal advantage.
If that seemed bizarre, given the balance of play and the way Hibs had sliced open the Gayfield side time and time again, it was to get a lot more surreal in the 39th minute when Dick Campbell’s men showed an alertness absent in the Hibs ranks and, taking a quick short corner as the home rearguard was still trying to organise itself, proved themselves more clinical than their hosts had been up to that point.
As the ball was zipped low across the box, about nine yards out, Steven Doris, showed great composure to ping it , first time, back across Ross Laidlaw’s goal, tucking it into the far corner. If it was a scoreline few in the ground would have predicted on the basis of the first-half play, it was one Arbroath had earned with a resolute showing.
Settling into the game and adapting to the pace of play after their early wake-up call, the gap in quality and league positions determined that they remained under almost constant pressure as Hibernian laid siege.
Preparing for their return to the Premiership and keen to ensure progress beyond these League Cup group stages, Hibernian were a force to be reckoned with and the fluency and the flow of their play was potent.
Watching in the stands, alongside midfielder Vykintas Slivka, who had been expected to join on a one-year loan deal from Juventus but is now expected to finalise a three-year permanent move today, new Lithuanian striker, Deivydas Matulevicius, must have been thrilled by the service and supply offered to the forward line, and the prospect of being able to capitalise on that in upcoming matches.
Playing three at the back, to free up the full-backs and allow them to operate with a trio of forwards, for all the drive and the positivity in their passing and their ability to cut up the field, they had been unable to blow away Arbroath.
Offside decisions counted against Simon Murray in the opening exchanges. From the first minute reprieve for the swamped guests to the major let-off in the seventh minute when he had actually rounded away keeper Ricky Gomes to finish before noting the assistant referee’s raised flag. A frequent occurrence for a player who likes to play on the shoulder of the last man, it was just one of the reasons Lennon’s men could not put a better shine on the scoreline.
Danny Swanson, Martin Boyle and John McGinn all tried to address that but even when they won a penalty in the 22nd minute Swanson could not find the target, with too many efforts going high and wide. But there was also some dogged defending, decent goalkeeping and, on several occasions, a matter of inches as the final ball was only just cut out.
By the time Swanson’s spotkick had been squandered, Hibs had broken the deadlock. In the 18th minute Murray rose to head home a David Gray cross.
The equaliser in the 39th minute was a wake-up call and Hibs responded by moving back up the gears. They regained the lead in the 45th minute when young Ryan Porteous headed a McGinn ball flighted into the area down and past Gomes.
Then, as the second half got underway, they battered their guests, adding two quick goals, in the 51st and 52nd minute, courtesy of a Murray tap-in and then a McGinn effort from the edge of the area. And then another quick one-two, in the 87th and then 90th minutes, with man of the match, Porteous, bulleting another header, before Murray volleyed home, wrapping up his hat-trick.
That scoreline was a slightly more honest reflection of the gulf between the sides, although on a more clinical night, against a less determined side, they know their build-up play could have harvested even greater rewards.