MOMENTUM is a precious commodity in football and Hibs look to have gathered it at the most crucial phase of the battle to be best of the rest in the Scottish Championship.
Scorers: Robertson 19’, Stevenson 82’
Alan Stubbs’ men racked up a third consecutive league victory over Rangers for the first time ever last night, leap-frogging the beleaguered Ibrox side into second place in the table in the process, with goals from Scott Robertson and Lewis Stevenson.
While this was a long way from being as convincing as the two previous wins in the series this season, it was no less satisfying for a Hibs side who have now lost just one of their last 18 league fixtures.
For Rangers caretaker manager Kenny McDowall, the misery of his situation shows no sign of easing. Although this was a much improved performance from his team, who controlled territory and possession for long periods, they have now lost four or their six fixtures since he replaced Ally McCoist.
While Hearts have appeared nailed-on certainties to win the title for some time now, the significance of finishing second in the Championship table is considerable as it entails one fewer tie in the end of season play-offs.
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That is now the most realistic prize on offer to both of these teams and it is Hibs who have been building up a head of steam while Rangers’ form has steadily deteriorated.
The evening began with a now familiar protest outside the front entrance from supporters opposed to the current boardroom regime. This was Rangers’ final home fixture before the General Meeting of shareholders in London on 4 March which will determine whether the incumbent directors remain in power.
On the pitch, McDowall made six changes to the side eliminated so tamely from the Scottish Cup last Sunday. Some were enforced by injuries and suspensions, although Ian Black’s demotion to the bench was unsurprising given his wretched display in that defeat to Raith Rovers.
His place went to 20-year-old Andy Murdoch, who was among the bright sparks for the home side, who could count themselves extremely unfortunate to be behind at half-time. They made by far the more purposeful start, carving out the first opening of the night after just 25 seconds.
Slovenian international Haris Vuckic, presumably unfazed by the erroneous appearance of a Slovakian flag behind his photograph on the front cover of the matchday programme, started the move which ended with Kris Boyd scuffing a shot straight to Mark Oxley.
Vuckic, the only one of the five on-loan Newcastle players on duty for Rangers, looked keen to build on the positive initial impression he made with his debut goal against Raith. A fine touch from the midfielder set him up for a ninth minute shot which Oxley could only parry into the path of Kenny Miller whose follow-up was cleared off the line by Liam Fontaine.
Hibs were slow to respond, although a surging run from right-back and captain for the night David Gray might have brought a reward had any of his team-mates been alert to his dangerous cross which flew untouched across the six yard box.
Rangers remained the more threatening side and Oxley was at full stretch to touch a dipping 20 yard shot from Miller over the top. From the corner whipped in by Vuckic, a glancing header from Boyd sailed wide. That early promise from Rangers dissipated dramatically when Hibs plundered their 19th minute opener. It was a real sucker punch, orchestrated by Scott Allan. His pass to Jason Cummings saw the striker’s shot bravely blocked by Rangers’ goalkeeper Lee Robinson. The ball spun loose and Robertson was the quickest to react, sliding a low shot into the unguarded net.
While Rangers continued to dominate possession, they were clearly shaken by the setback. They were forced into a change in the 31st minute, Miller limping off to be replaced by Nicky Clark.
The substitute was presented with a decent chance to equalise just three minutes later when Vuckic and Boyd combined to find his run into the penalty area. But although Clark got in front of Hibs defender Keith Watson, he lost his footing and the opportunity slipped away.
The pattern of play remained the same into the second half, Rangers dictating the tempo while Hibs struggled to make any telling headway as an attacking force. The visitors were firmly on the back foot and having to rely on poor finishing from Rangers to hold onto their lead.
Boyd, making his first starting appearance for two months, was off target again in the 53rd minute when he screwed a header wide after being picked out by Vuckic’s well delivered free-kick.
Oxley was called into action again two minutes later, displaying good agility to touch a looping header from Sebastian Faure over the top. It was largely one-way traffic, but Rangers were toiling to find the vital touch in and around the penalty area.
Boyd’s radar was badly askew once again when he wastefully headed over from close range after getting on the end of Nicky Law’s cross from the right.
Vuckic looked as likely as anyone to salvage something for Rangers and it required a perfectly timed last-ditch tackle from Paul Hanlon to deny him a close range shooting chance after a clever turn and run into the box.
McDowall’s decision to withdraw Vuckic in the 78th minute, replacing him with Jon Daly at the same time Dean Shiels came on for Boyd, was met with voluble disapproval from the home fans.
It was a substitution from Stubbs which ensured all three points would be heading back along the M8. Fraser Fyvie, on for Allan, conjured up a delightful lofted pass over the Rangers defence into the path of Stevenson. Although Robinson got a hand to Stevenson’s shot, he couldn’t keep it out and the celebrations of the Hibs fans could begin in earnest.
Rangers: Robinson, Faure, Zaliukas, McGregor, Wallace; Murdoch; Law, Hutton, Vuckic (Daly 78); Miller (Clark 31), Boyd (Shiels 78). Subs not used: Kelly, Aird, Black, Halkett.
Hibernian: Oxley, Watson, Hanlon, Fontaine; Gray, McGeouch, Robertson, Allan (Fyvie 77), Stevenson; Cummings (Boyle 63), Malonga (Dja Djedje 84). Subs not used: Cerny, Forster, Craig, Stanton.