Hibs 0-0 Celtic: Easter Road stalemate as Hibs extend unbeaten league run
The finishing line remains clearly in sight for Celtic but the pace of their procession towards another Premiership coronation has suddenly slowed up.
The champions were held to a second successive goalless draw in the Premiership as Hibs extended their unbeaten record under Paul Heckingbottom in the league to nine matches.
Celtic still hold a commanding nine-point lead over Rangers at the top of the table with just four games of the campaign remaining but this was a performance which understandably caused interim manager Neil Lennon considerable irritation.
While goalkeeper Ofir Marciano was ultimately the hero for Hibs, most notably with two dramatic stoppage time saves, Celtic too often lacked both the urgency and imagination expected of a team closing in on the club’s eighth consecutive title.
Heckingbottom had urged his players to show the confidence to go ‘toe-to-toe’ with the champions and they took him at his word as they made a bright and purposeful start to the contest.
The only criticism to be made of Hibs’ display during that vibrant opening 20 minutes or so was their failure to make the breakthrough as they created a number of highly promising openings.
Daryl Horgan, who posed a constant threat on the right against Celtic left-back Emilio Izaguirre who was drafted in to replace the injured Kieran Tierney, signalled the intent of the hosts when he showed good strength to get away a shot in the first minute which Scott Bain gathered at the second attempt.
Horgan then played a sharp 1-2 with David Gray to work his way behind Izaguirre and whip over an inviting cross which Stephane Omeonga was narrowly unable to connect with at the far post.
When Celtic forced their way to the other end of the pitch for the first time, there was an optimistic claim for a penalty kick when Jonny Hayes went down under a Gray challenge. But the speed with which Hayes leapt to his feet indicated the Irish winger knew the decision wasn’t coming his way.
Celtic were taking time to settle into any rhythm and no-one looked more uncertain than Olivier Ntcham who was guilty of a succession of misplaced passes. The French midfielder conceded possession cheaply to Mark Milligan to present Hibs with their next sight of goal, the ball making its way to Omeonga who saw his 20 yard shot scrambled wide by Bain low to the goalkeeper’s right.
Odsonne Edouard had Celtic’s attempt on goal when he eluded Darren McGregor to take down a cross from James Forrest but his shot was deflected wide.
Hibs were soon back on the front foot and carved out another decent chance in the 14th minute. Stevie Mallan’s cross was knocked down by McGregor into the path of Paul Hanlon who half-volleyed an effort just over.
Celtic gradually composed themselves and began to dictate the tempo of play in a manner more to their liking. A mistake from Milligan almost proved costly for Hibs, the Australian giving the ball away under pressure from Hayes before Edouard saw his shot deflected narrowly off target.
The visitors enjoyed greater control of proceedings as the first half progressed and Marciano had to make a fine save to deny them a 26th minute opener, leaping high to his right to touch over a dipping shot from Ntcham.
There was a more comfortable save for Marciano when he held a Lustig header from Ntcham’s cross a minute later as Celtic appeared ever more threatening.
Darren McGregor came to Hibs’ rescue with a brilliantly timed interception inside the penalty area just as Edouard was primed to convert a Lustig cross as the home side became increasingly stretched in defence.
As Hibs tried to reimpose themselves as an attacking force at the end of the first half, Florian Kamberi picked up the first booking of the afternoon for needlessly involving himself in the aftermath of an off the ball spat between Omeonga and Scott Brown, rushing over to shove the Celtic captain in the back.
Kamberi was followed into the book by Mallan 12 minutes into the second half for a challenge on Lustig which provoked a histrionic reaction from the Swedish full-back who appeared to be calling on referee Nick Walsh to show a straight red card. Mallan was less than impressed by Lustig’s conduct and was involved in a verbal clash with Lennon who had advanced to the edge of his technical area to make his views on the incident known.
Lennon made his first change of the afternoon in the 62nd minute, seeking to add greater creativity to his side for the closing stages as he replaced Ntcham with Tom Rogic.
It took another outstanding save from Marciano to deny Celtic the lead three minutes later. Hanlon was booked for a cynical foul on Hayes just outside the box and from the free-kick, Edouard produced a sweet strike which was destined for the top corner of the net until Marciano flung himself to his right to keep it out.
While Celtic were now largely in the ascendancy as the collective effort of the Hibs players saw them tire visibly, there was a chance for the hosts to snatch victory four minutes from time when Bain made a brave and crucial save to keep out a close range effort from substitute Oli Shaw.
Celtic responded with a ferocious late flurry of pressure but were denied one of their trademark late winners by Marciano in the third minute of stoppage time as he first brilliantly diverted an Edouard shot wide then acrobatically kept out Jozo Simunovic’s header from the resulting corner.