Euro challengers serve up feast

DETERMINATION often goes a long way in the SPL to securing an edge, and both these sides, in a boisterously entertaining cliff-hanger of a match, showed the resilience and grit required to sustain campaigns for a place in Europe next season.

In spite of being deprived of key men through injury and suspension - Hibernian were without Guillaume Beuzelin and Dundee United missed Barry Robson, Jordan Robertson and Noel Hunt - the closest challengers to the Old Firm served up a reminder in this match of why no individual is ever greater than the collective will of the team.

A credit to themselves and their managers, whatever the players lacked at times in terms of composure given the frantic pace of the contest (in the first-half both sides gave the ball away frequently under pressure in midfield), there was no questioning either side's commitment or drive. And when the game opened up in the second half to deliver four goals and a breathtaking injection of excitement, no one in the crowd of nearly 15,000 left the ground feeling short changed.

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On a sharp winter's afternoon under a dark sky and a haunting moon, this was full-blooded Scottish football in the raw. The point should be made that although referee Willie Collum sent off Sean Dillon and showed the yellow card to nine other players, the crime count was more of a condemnation of the fussy style of officiating currently endorsed by the SFA rather than a reflection of reckless play. If Scottish referees were in charge in the English Premier League, matches would be in danger of finishing five a side.

When United, who were sharper and more focused than Hibs at the start of the second-half, built a two-goal lead thanks to a couple of 'good morning' headers from David Robertson, it was hard to imagine how the home side were going to force a way back into the game against such a well-organised defence.

However, John Collins' decision to throw the kitchen sink at United - Abdessalam Benjelloun and Mickael Antoine-Curier were sent on to support Steven Fletcher up front - was rewarded with a wonderful solo effort from the Moroccan and a well taken penalty from the Frenchman.

"We hadn't translated our first-half domination into goals and, all credit to United, they scored two identical goals from terrific deliveries," recalled Collins. "But we showed great spirit and self-belief to come back. It's the third time this season against the run of play we've been two goals behind at Easter Road. When that happens, things can go one of two ways. Players can hide or buckle and you end up losing three or four. Or else you roll up the sleeves, keep believing and stick together. That's exactly what they did."

Bearing in mind how Fletcher had suffered such a torrid time in front of goal - the striker was presented with enough chances to score a hat-trick - it took the arrival of Benji to add an element of equanimity in the penalty box. Not considered for selection when he fasted during Ramadan, the striker, who was hailed by Collins as the equivalent of a new signing, knew almost to the minute the last time he'd kicked a ball for the club. "It was two months and 22 days precisely," he confided. "Fans came up to me in the supermarket asking me where I'd been. I got a great reception and am delighted to be back."

Once Hibs were on level terms and United were reduced to 10 men, the home side might have been expected to run out comfortable winners. But Levein's men played with great heart themselves and could easily have purloined all three points during a gripping climax.

Although the United manager preferred to dwell on the sense of pride he felt over a mature performance away from home, this was another occasion when the Tannadice club failed to complete 90 minutes with a full complement.

United, who play aggressively and offer their opponents little or no time on the ball, are being punished for their committed approach: no fewer than eight of their players have been dismissed in 14 matches. Suspensions are already starting to take a toll on their resources.

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So much so that when their centre-forward, Jon Daly, limped off after a clash with Chris Hogg, Levein was forced to send centre-half Lee Wilkie up front and introduce Garry Kenneth in defence. "Lee did a good job," smiled Levein, "but he's not Didier Drogba."

With the unfortunate Daly expected to face another long spell on the sidelines through injury, Levein must hope there are enough resources available at Tannadice to strengthen the squad during the transfer window in January.

According to Wilkie, United's squad needs to be bolstered in order to maintain their lofty spot in the SPL. "We are going to get injuries and suspensions and that's when the size of the squad will be tested," he said. "Some of the sending-offs have been unlucky. I know we have the worst record for red cards in the league, but a few have been unfortunate. The transfer window is not so far away and I'm sure the manager will be looking to bring in bodies in January."

Although he had no quibble with the referee's decision to award Hibs a penalty when Dillon brought down David Murphy, Wilkie felt the decision to dismiss the full-back as the last man was punitive.

"Yes, it was a penalty," he said. "But when the player is making a genuine challenge and the defence is in a line - Sean was no further back than anyone else - then it seems harsh. It has to be remembered this is a contact sport."

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