THE Clydesdale Bank Premier League has maintained an impression of competitiveness until deep December, despite the chasing pack doing more harm to themselves than to Celtic.
There has been an exercise in mutual throat-cutting among the clubs below the league leaders. Only six points separate second place from seventh. It is Motherwell's turn to occupy the runners-up place on the back of a stirring recovery and victory at Easter Road, but they have yet to conclusively prove they are any better than Hibernian, Inverness Caledonian Thistle or Aberdeen. Celtic are clearly the best team in the league, but there can be no certainty over who will finish closest to them.
It is an odd season when a team can sit second in the league having won only two home games by December 17. Motherwell have played 18 league matches and dropped points in 10 of them, yet their away form has been the foundation of a run of results which has returned them to the top two for the first time since leading the league in September. They played some fine attacking football in the closing half-hour against a team which wrongly believed it had put them away. To lose after holding a 2-0 lead at home said as much about Hibs as it did about Motherwell's commendable recovery.
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Hibs have taken 17 points at home – the most in the league. If any side should have been sure of themselves after going ahead through two Eoin Doyle goals it ought to have been them. Doyle made it 2-0 in the 54th minute, so far into the match it could have broken Motherwell's resolve, yet Pat Fenlon's players reacted hesitantly to their winning position. When Motherwell pulled a goal back through Jamie Murphy, Hibs retreated, and Fenlon sent out the wrong message when he took off top scorer Leigh Griffiths, then Doyle, to switch to 4-5-1 from 4-4-2. Motherwell went for them and Murphy scored again, before Bob McHugh got an 88th-minute winner. Hibs' collapse was compounded when captain James McPake was sent off in stoppage time for a second booking.
The loss was Hibs' fourth in five league games. "I wouldn't say confidence is fragile," said Doyle. "We know we're a good team and are still in a good position in the league [fourth] regardless of this result. It's a massive blow, though. It's just the manner we lost it in. We just seemed to fold and that's not nice to see. We could have gone second. It's very tight, though. Back-to-back wins and you could be right back up there. It's the way the league is. But you have to take these opportunities, especially at home. We haven't been the best on the road but our home performances have usually been good. It's not something we want to creep into our game. We weren't really ugly enough. We should have been uglier in terms of winning tackles and trying to run down the clock."
Doyle has seven goals this season and Hibs will rely on him more than ever when on-loan Griffiths next month makes his expected return to Wolves. Motherwell will be weakened sooner or later, too, with Murphy, Chris Humphrey, Nicky Law, Darren Randolph, Michael Higdon, Shaun Hutchinson and Tom Hateley among those who are out of contract in May, and free to speak with other clubs next month.
Saturday demonstrated how much Motherwell could lose. Once Murphy and Humphrey got going, Hibs could not deal with them. "We never started playing until after they scored their second," said Murphy. "In the end we fully deserved it. Until their second goal Hibs stopped us playing out from the back or playing wide – they did well. But we play as a team and there's a lot of spirit."
Celtic have moved clear at the top with a little to spare. Now it is Motherwell's turn to show they can put similar distance between second and third.