Three days removed from a heartbreaking League Cup final defeat, amidst a five-game run without a win, Hibs were able to secure what could prove to be a pivotal victory by defeating Inverness CT to set-up a Scottish Cup semi-final against Dundee United and shot at Hampden redemption.
The devastation among the Hibernian ranks after the loss to Ross County had many writing them off. Jason Cummings talked about jumping off a bridge, Darren McGregor called it the worst moment of his career, and Liam Fontaine, having been at fault for the County winner, tweeted to supporters in an act of catharsis. The players were crestfallen and it was there for all to see. Surely the last thing they needed was another hugely important game at the end of the long journey to Inverness CT.
Instead of becoming another nail in the coffin of their once treble dreams, last night’s victory has reinvigorated the Easter Road masses. With a winnable semi-final against Dundee United to look forward to, suddenly the perspective has changed. Even their upcoming play-off challenge and main objective of getting back into the top flight appears less daunting. There is reason for optimism again.
Of the last six games, the previous five bringing four defeats and a draw, this appeared the toughest on paper. So how did Alan Stubbs’ side earn the victory?
Liam Fontaine bounced back
Hibs got another excellent performance from Darren McGregor, though that was to be expected. The centre back has been in great form ever since signing for his boyhood heroes and had impressive showings on Sunday and the initial tie against Inverness CT at Easter Road. The question marks surrounded Fontaine. His error in the final laid the ball on a plate for Alex Schalk to win County the League Cup. Many wondered how he’d respond.
It seems the defiant Twitter post he sent the day after the final was as much a message to himself as the fans. He said he’d come back stronger and then backed it up. Against Inverness CT he put in one of his best performances of the season, dominating home attackers Richie Foran and Liam Hughes.
Anthony Stokes finally lived up to his billing
There was universal approval of the Stokes signing when Hibs agreed a temporary deal for the striker with Celtic. Coming down to the Championship it was expected he’d score goals for fun, while he and Jason Cummings would form a deadly partnership to rival any in the country. Instead, last night’s double were his first goals in eight matches.
Though there were signs last night that he and Cummings could become compatible after initially failing to hit it off, Stokes’ biggest problem has been a lack of fitness. In the last two games, the quality was there for everyone to see through the first 60 minutes, only for him to run low on energy levels and become a complete non-factor for the remainder.
Having played zero minutes of first-team football between August and January, such a deficiency is understandable, and if he can get up to full speed then Hibs will have a deadly weapon within their arsenal for their play-off and cup assault.
Sure, he could barely miss either of his chances last night, but getting into those kind of areas is what we all expect from Stokes and something he’s not done enough to this point.
The midfield had more energy
Stubbs insists that he still believes in the Stokes and Cummings partnership. However, last night indicated that he no longer wishes to play Marvin Bartley and Kevin Thomson together in a four-man midfield.
Bartley’s role is to sit in front of the back four, using his physical superiority and anticipation to break up opposing attacks. He had a terrific game doing both against Inverness CT. Thomson, on the other hand, is something who likes to get on the ball and dictate possession. The problem for Hibs is that both are at their best as the deep-lying player. Since Hibs don’t play 4-2-3-1, injuries have led to Stubbs forcing both into a diamond midfield, with Thomson pushed further forward alongside John McGinn. It robs Hibs of the dynamism and energy required in that role.
Last night Stubbs fixed the problem by bringing James Keatings back as the No.10. In an attacking sense, this has only worked against some of the poorer sides in the Championship, but on the defensive end it enabled him to drop Liam Henderson back alongside McGinn. The duo, along with Keatings’ high energy style, enabled Hibs to press their opponents with greater effect.
They caught Inverness CT at their lowest point
It seems like every team in the top flight this season has reached a crisis point at some time or another. Aberdeen went through a six-game winless streak (ironically started by Hibs), while Celtic fans have wanted their manager out from the start and a select group of Hearts fans chartered a plane to slaughter theirs. And those are the best three sides in the country. That should tell you everything you need to know about the rest.
Inverness CT started the season poorly as a raft of injuries and ineffective play from the strikers kept them near the bottom. Once they began to get their stars back, and Miles Storey arrived on loan to add impetus to the attack, they turned things around. When they defeated Aberdeen in front of the BT Sport cameras, they looked like grabbing a top six place. They’ve not won a game since. Storey has been well out of form and the injuries have started to mount again. While they welcomed back a few players against Hibs, the team was unfamiliar, low on confidence and well out of sorts.
They got a little bit of luck
This is not an attempt to deride the win. Hibs were the better side and deserved the victory. It’s just that, in most football games, you need a little bit of luck to earn the victory. After every game in the winless run, Stubbs lamented their lack of luck and how, on a different day, they could have emerged victorious. Finally, they got some of that in the Highland capital. Danny Devine made two glaring errors at each of the Hibs goals, while Liam Hughes missed a sitter near the full-time whistle.
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