Hibs 0-1 Rangers: Euro hopes on a knife edge

THE congratulatory handshakes were perfunctory, a mere acknowledgment of the achievement of their opponents in having wrapped up back-to-back SPL titles. As such, a hasty exit was made, no-one in green and white keen to linger long enough to even catch a glimpse of Rangers' celebrations getting underway.

Party time it may have been for the Ibrox side, Kyle Lafferty having suddenly become the unlikely hero as he scored against Capital opposition for the second week in succession, his 17th-minute strike enough to consign Hibs to a yet another defeat, a fifth in a row which

has left the Easter Road outfit's European hopes balanced on a knife-edge.

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Thanks to their victory at Tynecastle 24 hours earlier Motherwell have now put themselves firmly in pole position for the final guaranteed place in next season's Europa League, a point ahead of Hibs, seven in front of Hearts with only three matches remaining.

Nevertheless, Hibees boss John Hughes, having only a few weeks ago made third place his goal, remains optimistic, convinced that, despite single-goal defeats by either side of the Old Firm in the space of a week, he's seen enough signs of his side recovering the sort of

form which once looked certain to propel them into Europe.

Hughes may well have a point but the fact remains Hibs have won only two of their last 15 matches – and those against the SPL's basement clubs Kilmarnock and Falkirk – while an even more long-term study of the statistics reveals the Edinburgh club have emerged victorious in only five of 32 post-split matches played in the upper echelon of the league.

And, with Hearts due at Easter Road on Saturday before Hibs travel to Fir Park the following Wednesday, success or failure still rests very much in their own hands although injuries and suspensions – as Hughes cautioned during those heady days when it seemed as if nothing could go wrong – have conspired to hit at precisely the wrong time.

Kevin McBride, a player much under-rated by many but one who Hughes sees as "stitching" the side together, and Darren McCormack will join Sol Bamba on the suspended list for the visit of the Jambos while Chris Hogg's departure at half-time on this occasion, the back problem which has plagued him in recent weeks flaring up again, puts a question mark against his participation for the remainder of the season, Hughes having revealed a training ground accident is likely to deprive him of the services of goalkeeper Graham Stack for the duration while playmaker Merouane Zemmama has similarly been ruled out.

Six first-team regulars out plus midfielder Liam Miller still nursing a calf problem which saw him sit this one out doesn't bode well but, in typically pugnacious form, Hughes firmly believes it's still all to play for.

He said: "It was always going to be nip and tuck between now and the end of the season. But we have given ourselves a chance, a greater chance than the seven teams below us.

"We are still in there battling and hopefully we can get back to winning ways in an Edinburgh derby."

As always, Hughes will no doubt be pinning his hopes on the goalscoring exploits of Anthony Stokes and Derek Riordan, the Republic of Ireland striker quiet on this occasion but "Deeks" twice testing Rangers goalkeeper Allan McGregor, a "squiggler" gratefully beaten to safety before the Ibrox No.1 threw himself full-length to push away a netbound half-volley from the same player.

But, again, it's that no small matter of keeping the back door shut, Hughes admitting Lafferty, while having finished in style, was allowed his goal far too easily, the striker holding off first McCormack and then Hogg before drilling a low shot beyond Graeme Smith and into the far corner of the net.

The Hibs boss said: "It was a soft goal, all credit to Lafferty, but for him to bully our right-back and centre-half was disappointing. It was a great finish but I would expect us to defend it a little bit better."

What did please Hughes, however, was the manner in which his side passed the ball about, although at times their build-up play was a tad slow, an inability to get down the flanks and hit the bye-line to stretch the Rangers defence all too evident, 39-year-old David Weir and stand-in stopper Lee McCulloch happy enough to see most of the play go across rather than through the visitors' back four.

Hughes said: "I felt we passed the ball really well, our ball retention was good, everything I am wanting at this football club.

"I am honest enough to say that in the last quarter it could have been better but, having said that young David Wotherspoon could have got in once or twice, good moves in which our link-up play was good."

Wotherspoon, restored to his favoured position over the past couple of weeks, certainly did look more at ease this time round than he did at Celtic Park, the 20-year-old firing over from a John Rankin lay-off and then being too slow to pull the trigger when left in space by substitute Abdessalam Benjelloun's deft flick.

There were also claims for a late penalty as Riordan went down under the combined challenge of McCulloch and Steven Whittaker, the Hibs striker adamant he'd been clipped by his former team-mate, referee Willie Collum turning a deaf ear to his pleas.

While Hughes adopted a pragmatic approach to that incident – "it's history, was his reply – what really annoyed him was Collum allowing Rangers defensive wall to creep forward as Riordan lined up a late

free-kick after Sasa Papac had felled Benji.

He said: "The referee paced out ten yards but let them stand eight away.

"They refereed that situation. He (Collum] showed have been strong in getting them back because Derek has the quality to stick one in the top corner."

Hughes also felt Colin Nish had been unlucky when he fended off the attentions of McCulloch to get the ball into the net with just five minutes remaining, Collum decreeing he'd been guilty of a push on the Rangers player while the Hibs boss felt he'd been guilty of little more than a hand-off as he attempted to find himself sufficient space. The bottom line, however, is that it looks virtually certain Hibs fans won't find out until the final kick of the ball at Tannadice a week on Sunday whether or not they'll be able to look out their passports come July.

Hughes, though, insisted whatever the final outcome his players can regard this season, no matter what anyone else may say, as reasonably successful.

He said: "What I am trying to do at this club is instil a mentality, a real culture that we are hard to beat, it's win-win every week. It takes time but the response I have had from these boys this year has been fantastic. For all the hard work they have put in, I hope we can win a couple of games and get that European spot."