THE picture has now crystallised for Hibernian.
If they are to retain their place in the SPFL Premiership for another season then they must find a way to overcome an obdurate but enterprising Hamilton Academical side over two legs, starting with game one at New Douglas Park on Wednesday. It looks a challenge fraught with danger.
Terry Butcher, the Hibernian manager, was an interested spectator at the same venue yesterday as Hamilton did enough to see off Falkirk and book their place in the play-off final. If there has been some grumbling about the new system and the way that it favours the Premiership team, then at least it delivered the most deserving representative from the Championship.
Hamilton led the division for long spells before eventually settling for second behind Dundee. At least now they will have another crack at going up. Hibs, as the team from the top division, will go into the play-off final as favourites but a look at the two teams' records would suggest it will be a close-run affair.
This narrow win, that sealed a 2-1 aggregate triumph, extended Hamilton's record to one loss from their last 15 matches. Hibs, in contrast, have won only one of their last 19 matches, and not at all since February.
These are two teams moving in opposite directions, the only question is whether Hibs can belatedly discover some form when they most need it. They will also need to find a way to beat Kevin Cuthbert, something Falkirk could not do yesterday. The 31-year-old goalkeeper was Hamilton's best player, making three magnificent saves to keep the visitors at bay.
In the end Tony Andreu's first-half goal proved enough for Alex Neil's side but Cuthbert more than played his part in helping Hamilton Academical through.
Falkirk could not beat Hamilton in four league games so it was perhaps not a surprise they could not do so in two play-off ties. They contributed substantially to the second leg, only to be ultimately undone by one defensive mistake after 15 minutes.
A high, bouncing ball into the Falkirk area was not dealt with by David McCracken, allowing Jason Scotland to drag it back from the goal line into the path of Andreu. With goalkeeper Michael McGovern exposed, Andreu lashed a shot past him for his 15th goal of a productive season. "It wasn't my greatest goal but maybe my most important," said the Frenchman afterwards. "I think it's great when you can help your team."
On a sticky artificial surface neither side was able to build any real momentum. Play flitted instead from end to end, leading to a number of half-chances for both teams. The best in the first half - apart from the goal - fell to Falkirk, Mark Millar's lofted free kick met flush on the forehead by the diving Mark Beck. It looked destined for the net but Cuthbert had other ideas, flashing out a wrist to keep it out.
This was Falkirk's fourth game in 12 day s but, instead of tiring, Gary Holt's side grew more energetic the longer it went on. They threatened again early in the second half, Cuthbert's clearance dropping to Rory Loy on the edge of the box. The forward hoisted it back over the goalkeeper's head but not beyond the diligent Ziggy Gordon, who cleared the lob off the line.
If Cuthbert had looked unimpressive in that instance then he twice redeemed himself in the moments that followed.
First he kept out Will Vaulks' rasping volley after the full-back had been picked out at the back post, then he followed that with an even better stop, stretching to save Conor McGrandles' goalbound effort. McCracken then headed wide from a Millar cross, although a corner was awarded. It would prove to be the last game of Falkirk's season but at least they went out with a bang.
"To a man in the second half I thought we were excellent," said Holt. "We gave it a right good go and their 'keeper made some wonder saves to keep them in the game. There's always a winner and loser, and unfortunately we were the losers today."
Hamilton should have made the game safe late on but Andy Ryan wasted a chance on the counterattack and then saw a more convincing effort well fielded by McGovern. One goal, though, turned out to be enough. They now have Hibs in their sights.
"We have confidence going into these games because we are playing well, scoring goals and we are on a great run," said Neil. "If we play well we would fancy ourselves against anyone. We need to give it our best shot and that's all we can ask. There's no reason why we can't do it."