It was billed as the tie of the round. Now they’ll have to serve up an encore. In an intriguing, absorbing, fluctuating William Hill Scottish Cup skirmish that was as crisp as the crust on a Dundee peh, United and Hibernian served up some fine fare and four cracking goals here at Tannadice.

Hibernian were twice ahead. Dundee United, with the prolific Lawrence Shankland adding another few quid to his price tag, showed great character. The cup’s a great leveller so folk say – well, apart from the Bon Accord boss who watched his side lose 36-0 to Arbroath back in ye day – and the runaway leaders in the Championship gave the side sitting sixth in the Ladbrokes Premiership a good run for their money.

“We spoke about belief before the game,” said the Dundee United manager, Robbie Neilson. “You can talk about tactics all day but the players have to believe in each other and believe that they’re going to have enough quality to get a result. I think today will definitely help us in the replay.”

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The last side to beat United at Tannadice was East Fife back in July. Hibernian, with Steven Whittaker making his first start since August, didn’t waste much time stamping their authority on this one as they made a robust assault on Fortress Tannadice.

Within the first couple of minutes, Florian Kamberi arrowed in a shot on the angle which beat Benjamin Siegrist in the United goal but was blocked on the line by the thigh of Mark Connolly. There would be no such reprieve for the home side a few minutes later however as Hibernian forged a lead. With a delightful reverse pass which made such an incision in the United defence it should have been performed in a surgery ward at Ninewells, Martin Boyle set up Christian Doidge and his finish was ruthless. It was a wonderfully conceived goal.

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Buoyed by that breakthrough, Hibernian kept their foot to the floor and should have doubled their lead in 16 minutes. From defending a corner, they broke out with menace as United were left worryingly exposed at the back. Boyle sent Melker Hallberg scampering into the box but his effort was fairly timorous even though Siegrist did well to block it.

United were toiling to gain a foothold. They may be 17 points clear in the Championship but Hibernian’s pace and movement in the initial to-ings and fro-ings illustrated the step up.

The early Hibernian momentum eased however and the hosts, with character and perseverance, got themselves back into the match. Shankland had not had a sniff during a largely fruitless opening 45 minutes but, like all fine strikers, the lack of opportunities did not stifle his clinical instincts. When the one chance arrived in the last act of the half, he took it with classy aplomb. Ian Harkes orchestrated the opening and Shankland, with a shift of weight and terrific timing, swept in a finish of total authority to notch his 25th of the domestic season.

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Game on? Well, Hibernian had other ideas as they went about putting United's gas at a peep. Within two minutes of the resumption, they were ahead again. Boyle took possession some 25 yards out and, with the United defence slow to close him down, he unleased a thumping drive which bounced into the bottom corner.

Hibernian had the bit between their teeth and Kamberi stung the palms of Siegrist not long after. They still couldn’t put United to the sword, though, and the spirited hosts got another leveller on 74 minutes. It was something of a bolt from the blue. There appeared to be little danger when substitute Louis Appere picked up the ball on the left but he came inside and sent in a grass-cutter from distance which curled beautifully and went in off the far post.

United finished strongly but Hibernian, who may have been feeling a bit leggy after being largely idle through the winter break, nearly won it in the last knockings. Doidge pounced at the back post but Siegrist was on hand to block.

They’ll have to do it all again at Easter Road a week on Tuesday. “When you’re ahead twice in the game it’s frustrating,” said Jack Ross, the Hibernian manager. “I’ve spoken about how difficult a tie like this would be. I felt we were dominant today and we can take confidence from our performance especially coming off the back of the break.”