LIAM Craig is nothing if not demanding. No sooner had his Hibs team secured back-to-back league victories for the first time in 2014 than he was suggesting that they need six, seven, maybe eight on the bounce if they are to have any chance of winning the league title.
Raith Rovers 1-3 Hibernian
Scorers: Raith Rovers - McKay (40); Hibernian - Cummings (44), Fontaine (78), Malonga (81)
Many have long since given up on that possibility. While Hibs have put behind them their sloppy start to the season with a run of just one defeat in 11 league matches, there have been four draws in that sequence, and they are 16 points off the pace. Their next two matches are against Rangers and Hearts.
Still, by coming from behind in Kirkcaldy, they added maximum points to the three they earned against Alloa Athletic seven days earlier and offered an indication that they might just be gathering strength as they enter the crucial festive period.
On a day when Queen of the South were beaten by Cowdenbeath, goals by Jason Cummings, Liam Fontaine and Dominique Malonga lifted Alan Stubbs’ side into third place, seven points behind second-placed Rangers, who visit Easter Road on Saturday.
“We know how big it is next week,” said Craig. “If we can go and win next week, it closes the gap again. That’s what we need to keep doing, keep looking in front, looking at Rangers and Hearts. There’s a lot of games left but we need to go on a run of six, seven, eight wins in a row if we’re going to have any chance of winning the league. We just need to keep taking it game by game and keep winning. That’s two on the bounce now. We’ll try and make it three next week.”
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It was a strange game at Stark’s Park. Hibs were easily the better team in an open first half, when they made – and missed – enough chances to win two games. Malonga was the main culprit, although Craig and Cummings were also guilty of failing to take advantage.
The punishment arrived four minutes before the interval when they fell behind to a goal by Barrie McKay. When Christian Nade launched a long ball, the winger, on loan from Rangers, cut inside, homed in on goal and struck the ball inside the right-hand post.
It was harsh on Hibs, but their immediate response was crucial. On the stroke of half-time, Malonga’s shot was cleared from the line, Cummings turned in the loose ball and the visitors headed for the dressing room with a spring in their step.
In the second half, it was Raith who held the upper hand, only to waste the good work. Jason Thomson was denied by the goalkeeper, Nade blasted over the bar and, just when it looked as though a draw might be on the cards, Hibs scored. From a short corner, Scott Allan crossed and Fontaine headed into the net. Any doubt as to the outcome was eliminated four minutes later, when Malonga added a third, sliding the ball into the bottom corner after Paul Hanlon had set him up.
“It was hard-fought,” said Craig. “In the first half, we were very dominant and disappointed to lose the goal, but we showed great character.
“It’s character that has been there a lot this season. We can get back into games. It was great to get the goal just before half-time.
“When we went behind, a lot of people would be saying, same old Hibs again, but we’re getting past that. We’ve got a bit to go yet, but we’re looking forward to getting back to Easter Road next week. It doesn’t come much bigger than Rangers and Hearts in the next two.”
For all their inconsistency, especially in the early part of the season, Hibs have performed rather well against the Championship’s biggest clubs. They have played two matches against Rangers, winning one, losing the other (after extra time) and matching them in both. Against Hearts this season, they have drawn and lost narrowly.
“If we are going to win our next two games, we will have to be at our best,” said Craig. “But the manager has said it. On our day, we are as good as anyone. We proved that at Ibrox in the two games we’ve played there. Against Hearts as well. I know they’ve been excellent in terms of their wins this season, but in the two games against us, there’s not been a lot in it. The way we have played in the last few months, there is nothing to fear.”
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