If you were ever looking for the perfect illustration of just how much a game of football can be affected by a sending off, then this game would most surely have to be it.
After thirty-five minutes of this Edinburgh derby at Easter Road, Hearts were absolutely coasting. They had dominated early exchanges which had seen Stephen Elliott spurning two glorious chances to score as well as having a very strong claim for a penalty turned down, and had taken a richly deserved lead when Ryan Stevenson expertly drilled home a left foot shot from the edge of the Hibs penalty area on 25 minutes. They were winning their personal battles all over the pitch and a third derby win of the season – possibly by a large margin – was looking imminent.
That was all until a single moment of madness by Hearts skipper Marius Zaliukas in that 35th minute. The big man is normally a very dependable member of the team but he does still occasionally have his ‘Zal moments’, and unfortunately for Hearts, his clumsy challenge on the hapless Akpo Sodje left referee Iain Brines with little option but to point to the penalty spot and issue the captain with his marching orders. It’s a very harsh rule that a player always has to leave the field in this situation, but it’s one that exists and Zaliukas was at no point paying attention to the ball when the cross came in, so it was the correct call. From this point onward, it was a completely different game of football.
After a considerable delay, Liam Miller kept himself composed and made an expert job of the penalty, opening his foot up to place it right in the corner past stand-in ‘keeper Jamie MacDonald’s left hand, and for the rest of the half it was the home side who dominated possession. They were unable to turn territorial superiority into any clear-cut chances which allowed Hearts to get to the break on level terms, but the alarming effect that the red card had on the match told you it was going to be a very difficult second 45 minutes for the men in maroon.
Half time 1-1
At the end of the first half it was clear that JJ and co had shuffled their pack in an attempt to hold onto what they had, with David Templeton being sacrificed for defender Jason Thomson to fill the gap at the back left by Zaliukas. This afforded Hibs a lot more time on the ball in deep areas of the field, and the Hearts players – particular Stevenson and Elliott who were rather stranded in the more advanced areas of the field as far as Hearts were concerned – had to run themselves into the ground for little in return in terms of creating anything of their own – it was all about keeping the ball a safe distance from MacDonald’s goal.
To be fair to Hearts, despite their hosts enjoying the lion’s share of possession in the second half, they defended resolutely and rarely allowed them a clear sight of goal. However you cannot play like this for an entire half and not concede chances, and Hearts should be thankful that the likes of Derek Riordan and Victor Palsson had left their shooting boots at home, as both wasted excellent openings to put this match beyond their rivals.
Palsson in particular had a great chance after Hibs quickly countered from a Hearts corner. Ian Black took a bad touch that let Miller in, and his pass found Palsson arriving on the edge of the penalty area with only MacDonald to beat, but his first-time effort was skewed over the crossbar.
Riordan found himself through on MacDonald twice as the match drew to a close, but he was firstly denied by an excellent save by the ‘keeper and then by his own shortcomings when he badly miscued a left foot shot from 12 yards that went out for a throw-in.
Only ten minutes were remaining on the clock when new Hibs signing Vaz Te looked to have secured the points for Colin Calderwood’s team. His touch from Wotherspoon’s cross looked heavy but he was able to take advantage of hesitancy from Bouzid and MacDonald to reach the ball and stab it past the onrushing goalkeeper into the net. The player did well but for me MacDonald should have been out there quicker and to be perfectly honest, flattened the Hibs player! Goalkeepers have a licence to get away with much more than outfield players and I felt he was far too timid in his attempts to put Vaz Te off. But he allowed the player to get to the ball first and stick it past him.
So…2-1 Hibs and all over? Not so. This Hearts team are nothing if not resilient and they weren’t about to leave Easter Road without a fight.
Only a few minutes later they won a free-kick on the right hand side of the field just inside the Hibs half. JJ waved everyone forward and from Craig Thomson’s well-struck kick, Andy Webster rose majestically to place a header in the direction of the unmarked Stephen Elliot…..and this time the Ulsterman showed the conviction he’d lacked in the first half in front of goal by volleying the ball emphatically into the corner of the net. The goal was like a carbon copy of the one he scored in the earlier derby at Easter Road this season, and while it’s a shame that this one did not result in three points for Hearts as it did in that game, I think everyone was still content enough that it was giving the team an unlikely point given the situation.
You’d perhaps have been disappointed if someone had only offered you a point before this game if you were a Hearts supporter….or indeed if you were a Hibbie, as after all everyone wants to win these matches and always thinks their team can regardless of the circumstances. But if we look at how the match panned out over the piece, yes it is very disappointing that Zaliukas made his mistake when he did, but the rest of the team rallied valiantly and credit must go to them for a very gritty second half performance.
Generally had a good game, although I felt he should have been less timid at Hibs’ second goal. No chance with penalty and made a couple of very good saves, particularly from Riordan late on.
Started at right-back and wasn’t doing too badly there despite it not being his position. Moved into the centre after red card and wasn’t overly troubled, although at the Hibs second goal he was caught napping.
Held the defence together after the red card, showing great composure and reading of the game. Has been a great signing.
C Thomson 7
Asked to play at left back which can’t have been easy, but stuck to his task well. Fired in some dangerous corners and great delivery to set up late equaliser.
Hardly anything to do as Hearts cruised their way through the first half hour, but then his moment of madness cost them their chance of three points.
Was playing very well when Hearts had 11 men on the field. Asked to go deeper after that and generally did ok, managing to retain possession better than most of his team-mates.
Was fairly quiet in the early stages but did look as though he could pose problems if used more as the game went on. Sadly he never got that chance when Zaliukas was sent off, and was sacrificed for Jason Thomson.
Started the game very well down the left, which is where Hearts were getting most of their early success. Set up great early chance for Elliott from there. Subbed midway through second half though as Hearts were forced back.
No-one tried harder than Ryan today. Was all over the park for Hearts really putting a shift in. His goal was very well taken and he also had a decent late effort that could have sneaked in at the near post.
As ever targeted by opposing players for some heavy treatment, including a shocking early challenge that probably should have resulted in a red card. Battled manfully and was fairly solid, apart from one slip that nearly let in Palsson.
Worked tirelessly throughout and never hid when things were not happening for him. Should have had two goals and a penalty early on but kept coming back for more. Got his reward late on with well taken equaliser.
J Thomson 6
Not normally a player I rate but I thought he did reasonably well after being thrown into this one. Caught out of position a couple of times but generally pretty solid and seems to have gained a couple of yards of pace, as two notable drives forward seemed to illustrate.
Very late sub.