Hibs 2-2 Hearts: So close to a perfect day for Hibees

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A FEW weeks ago simply avoiding defeat by their arch-rivals Hearts would have given the Hibs fans some cause for celebration.

But that was then and this is now, a measure of how far the Easter Road side have come under Colin Calderwood since the end of January that being forced to settle for a draw in the latest Edinburgh derby brought little or no satisfaction for those in green and white.

Instead, it was the maroon hordes who were jumping for joy, Stephen Elliott's late equaliser stretching Hearts unbeaten run in these Capital clashes to seven but, just as importantly, the Irish striker's volley took the Gorgie outfit another step towards securing third place.

The beach balls which greeted the emergence of the teams signalled where the Tynecastle supporters expect to be next season, in Europe, but of late Jim Jefferies' side have faltered ever so slightly.

Their lead over fourth-placed Dundee United is still commanding but the sight of the Tannadice side stunning Rangers 24 hours earlier at Ibrox would undoubtedly have prompted a few anxious glances over the shoulder.

Elliott's strike would certainly have helped calm any sense of unease, the Jambos ten points clear with games starting to rapidly run out.

For Hibs, though, Elliott's strike probably dashed their slim hopes of squeezing into the SPL's top six, this match representing a seventh game without defeat for the rejuvenated Easter Road side but, sadly, it all looks like being too little too late. Making up a seven-point gap on Motherwell with just three matches - two of them away to Celtic and Aberdeen before this week is out - before the split appears just too great a hurdle to overcome.

Given that a top-six finish seemed impossible at the end of January, results and performances since have, at least, presented Hibs fans with renewed hope for next season, Calderwood, with his transfer market activity, having proved he's capable of setting the club in the right direction. Each of his signings have had a positive impact, leaving supporters looking forward to further dealings over the summer months, the downward spiral apparently halted and leaving the future with a distinctly rosy hue.

Promising it might be, but the over-riding feeling for everyone connected with Hibs was that this was the one that got away, the chance for a victory over Hearts.

Only 11 minutes remained on the clock when substitute Vaz Te, one of seven Hibs players to have tasted their first Edinburgh derby action, cleverly took David Wotherspoon's cross to slip the ball beyond goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald to fire his side into a 2-1 lead.

But in what would have been an all too familiar ending for the Hibees, they were left ruing what might have been, referee Iain Brines awarding Hearts a contentious free-kick which was launched to the far post for Andy Webster to nod the ball down for Elliott to claim his second Easter Road goal.

"We should make sure we secure the victory," Calderwood admitted, "But we did not get through the big moment.

Had we survived that free-kick then I felt we would find a way to win the game and perhaps even score another.

"But we did not and we were served our punishment." Hibs' hopes of turning the derby day tide in their favour had risen when, with Hearts ahead thanks to Ryan Stevenson's low drive, Hearts skipper Marius Zaliukas saw red as he barged Akpo Sodje as he attempted to get on the end of Derek Riordan's high ball.

Liam Miller converted the resultant penalty and, having survived an early Hearts onslaught - one which Jefferies insisted should have left them "dead and buried" - it was Hibs who began to make their numerical superiority count, intelligently using the full width of the pitch to stretch their opponents at every opportunity.

Francis Dickoh headed wide before the first half was out, Victor Palsson fired over when left with only MacDonald to beat, the goalkeeper beating away a Riordan effort while Webster was simply immense in the centre of Hearts defence, on hand with a string of brave blocks and reading the game superbly to be in the right place to avert danger.

Calderwood said: "They should have scored early in the first half but we survived that period and got the break with the equaliser and sending off.

"I was happy enough with how we created chances and how we played in the second half but at the big moment we did not do our job which we should have done.

"We had just lfted the place, we had lifted the fans, given them evertyhing they could have hoped for and then we snatched it back off ourselves."

Even then Hibs had opportunities, MacDonald bringing off a superb save from Vaz Te before Matt Thornhill's pass left Riordan with a clear sight of goal, the home fans rising as one in expectation only to see their club's top scorer, normally so reliable in those situations, pull his shot across the face of goal and well wide.

It left Jefferies and his players to celebrate while the Hibs contingent trudged off, deflated and no doubt kicking themselves at being unable to see out the final few minutes.

Vaz Te summed up the entire team's feelings as he admitted Elliott's goal had taken the shine of his own, the former Bolton Wanderers' forward saying: "Did I think it was the winner? Pretty much,

"I thought we had them pretty much after the sending off. In the beginning they were on top but after our first goal we controlled most of the game and probably deserved to win it. We created more chances and were disappointed with only one point. Derek had most chances and I am sure he will be disappointed in himself." As a Hibs fan Riordan would no doubt be more disappointed than anyone at passing up the opportunity to claim another derby day winner but over the 90 minutes the supporters of both sides witnessed one of the more memorable clashes between Edinburgh's big two, one in which fortunes swung one way then the other.

Jefferies claimed: "We should have been three up in that opening half-hour but the penalty gave them a lift which they badly needed."

Vaz Te agreed Hearts held the upperhand early on but insisted: "They started well and looked as if they were controlling the game but all of a sudden it changed around and we were controlling the game and creating chances.

"We couldn't score, they got their one and did so we can only be disappointed because we deserved to win."