Saints up into fifth after edging past Hibs in Leith
St. Johnstone defeated Hibernian at Easter Road to move into fifth place and maintain their excellent record against the Hibees. Callum Watt reports.
In a poor game with little quality on show, the only goal came courtesy of a Ryan Porteous error midway through the first half.
Hibs looked like they could play for hours and not find the back of the net, and St Johnstone’s defence were all too happy to thwart Hibs’ poor attempts.
Callum Davidson was delighted with his team’s performance and spoke of a “good problem” having so many players in-form ahead of next Sunday’s crucial Scottish Cup semi-final.
It was back to league action for Hibernian and St Johnstone after two dramatic cup ties that sent them both to the Scottish Cup semi-finals. Hibs knew that if they won today and Aberdeen failed to do the same, they’d finish in third place for the first time since season 2004/05. The last time these sides met, a first half Liam Craig goal was the difference between the two in Perth.
Jack Ross made two changes to his Hibs team which survived a late scare to squeeze past Motherwell on penalties. Ofir Marciano came back in to replace cup keeper Matt Macey and top scorer Kevin Nisbet dropped out with a “slight knock”, replaced by winger Drey Wright.
Callum Davidson made an unexpected seven changes to his Saints team which produced a heroic, goalkeeper-inspired comeback to defeat Rangers at Ibrox. Zander Clark, Scott Tanser and Liam Craig dropped out completely, and Shaun Rooney, David Wotherspoon, Stevie May and Guy Melamed found places on the bench. Elliot Parish, James Brown, Callum Booth, Craig Bryson, Glenn Middleton, Michael O’Halloran and Chris Kane came into the starting XI.
The opening 15 minutes were cagey, with neither team able to get the ball down and create many chances. Hibs had a free kick midway inside the Saints’ half but Christian Doidge’s header from a Joe Newell in-swinger was easily caught by goalkeeper Parish.
St. Johnstone’s first real venture forward came in the 20th minute when a poor offside trap attempt from Hibs allowed Kane to force a corner. However, his resultant effort was blocked and cleared by Alex Gogic.
Almost immediately after, Middleton opened the scoring for the visitors. Ryan Porteous gifted Saints an opportunity by playing an aimless pass across goal from the left-back position. The ball was then picked up by the unmarked Saints midfielder who stroked it home down to Marciano’s bottom right.
St. Johnstone continued to push on and look to double their lead, with O’Halloran dispossessing Newell inside the Hibs half before feeding Middleton the ball, but his effort was tame and easily gathered by Marciano.
Hibs continued to have more of the ball but did little with it. Their only real post-goal chance came with 10 minutes remaining in the first half – Martin Boyle had to be at full stretch to connect with a Jackson Irvine cross, but Parish was equal to it and palmed the ball away to safety.
Hibs started the second half more brightly, with Newell cushioning a through ball for Boyle but the striker was crowded out in the Saints box. Gogic then attempted an acrobatic overhead kick after finding space six yards out from a corner but it sailed harmlessly over the bar.
Not much happened for the next 20 minutes, with the midfield battle raging on and neither goalkeeper called into action. Several free kicks were awarded to both sides but they came to nothing and the yellow cards began to rack up.
Yet another sloppy Hibs pass in their own half meant Paul McGinn had to take one for the team and haul down Kane before he had a sight at goal. The resulting free kick from Middleton went high over the bar, though, in what was his last act of the game.
Moments later, Hibs had the ball in the net after Irvine played a perfectly weighted through ball for Boyle, but he was adjudged to be offside before he slotted the ball through Parish’s legs.
Again, the final 15 came and went with little actually happening. Hibs had more of the ball, both sides had few clear-cut chances, and St. Johnstone were happy to hold on for the three points.
Overall, a pretty dreadful game void of much quality from either team. The Saints goal came from a defensive blunder after 22 minutes and Hibs didn’t really come close to equalising thereafter.
• Hibs missed Nisbet – Top scorer Kevin Nisbet’s absence today was felt by Hibs, who lacked much creativity all game. Boyle took his place up front alongside Doidge, but neither created many opportunities and Nisbet’s constant movement was a real loss. Jack Ross is hopeful, though, that Nisbet will be back training in time for next weekend’s cup tie.
• The race for third heats up – With today’s loss and Aberdeen’s win at Livingston, Hibs are now just three points ahead of the Dons with two games remaining. Hibs are, however, nine goals better off and as long as they avoid defeat when the pair meet at Pittodrie a week on Wednesday, they should be able to see off the Dons’ challenge.
• Europe still on for Saints – St. Johnstone are now ahead of Livingston in fifth place on goal difference and still in with a shout of competing in Europe next season. A Scottish Cup win OR if they finish fifth, Hibs finish third, and Hibs win the Cup, would secure this.
Jack Ross cut a frustrated figure post-match, disappointed with his team’s uncharacteristic performance, but thought the sides were pretty even:
“We didn’t play well. I don’t think we did enough to win the game but I also don’t necessarily think we deserved to lose it. I don’t think our opponents did much more than we did and it wasn’t a great game to watch, but we came out on the wrong side of the result because of the defensive lapse.”
Ross was booked after the final whistle for having words with referee Greg Aitken about a penalty decision, but insists his comments did not merit a caution:
“I didn’t swear, I didn’t raise my voice, I don’t think I was aggressive, but it is what it is and I’ll move on from it. I think referees forget that football is quite an emotional game at times. Sometimes officials like to talk to you and then chose their moments not to talk to you, and I find that frustrating.”
Callum Davidson was happy with his side’s squad depth after making several changes and maintaining their recent good form:
“The last three or four games I’ve made a few changes to try get some guys game time before the end of the season, and I’ve said before that I’m always happy with whatever 18 I pick. Elliot [Parish] was absolutely fantastic because he wasn’t in the team yesterday and got a late call this morning to say he had to step in. The way he performed today shows real great character – he was commanding his box in the second half and pulled off a fantastic save.”
Davidson also expressed his pleasure with his defensive back three who limited Hibs’ chances all game and stood strong to grind out the win:
“Hibs are a really good team going forward. I’ve watched a lot of them this season and they’ve got a real attacking threat from two or three different areas. So for us to come here in a big game for them and limit their chances was probably the most pleasing thing about today.”
Up next for both sides is a trip to Hampden next weekend. Hibs face off against Dundee United at 4pm on Saturday in a repeat of their 2016 semi-final which seen them go on to lift the trophy. St. Johnstone are up against St. Mirren at 2.15pm the following day, looking to keep their hopes of a cup double alive.