Football: CELTIC DIE HARDS; SPL SPECIAL... Hibs Can't Kill off Champs Who Don't Know How to Lose
Byline: By David McCarthy
THEY are much wanted and much vaunted but Hibs' class of 2006 has still to prove it has graduated from the school of hard knocks.
Yesterday they outplayed Scotland's champions for 70 minutes of a torrid encounter at Easter Road, going two goals up and performing with a panache and passion that had the purists purring.
Yet by the time referee Mike McCurry brought proceedings to a halt, John Collins' team were hanging on to a draw for dear life and might even have lost.
Why? Because Celtic had one quality that Hibs and the rest of Scottish football don't have - an all-consuming hatred of losing.
Hibs don't have centre-halves like Bobo Balde and Stephen McManus, who don't mind taking bodies as well as the ball. They don't have a nark like Neil Lennon, who marauded about the pitch giving his own team-mates as well as the opposition grief and making a contribution even when being outplayed.
This was a Celtic team that started 12 points clear and beat Manchester United in midweek. When they went 2-0 behind here yesterday after 63 minutes, you might have thought they'd have shrugged their shoulders and let this one slide.
Not on your life. Their two second-half subs, Evander Sno and Aiden McGeady, pulled them level 10 minutes after Kevin Thomson had added to Ivan Sproule's first-half goal.
They looked more than capable of going on to win it as well, although with virtually the last kick Stephen Glass could have done so for Hibs.
It all added up to a fantastic game of football in front of a capacity crowd that lapped up every pulsating second.
At the end, there was so much to admire in Hibs' performance. Yet it was Celtic's fortitude and sheer bloody-mindedness that will be long remembered.
Since coming from behind to beat Hibs 2-1 on August 26 they had reeled off 11 straight SPL wins to practically wrap up the title before the tinsel has come out. On four of those occasions they'd lost the first goal and still won.
But a draw and three straight wins, including the six-goal demolition of Hibs can't kill of Motherwell last week, had the Hibees flying coming into this one and not even the absence of Chris Killen could blunt the optimism of their supporters.
The Kiwi failed a fitness test on his hamstring and was replaced by Abdessalam Benjelloun. But let's call him Benji. Otherwise, Collins stuck with last week's team which meant Michael Stewart made only the bench on his return from suspension.
Celtic weren't exactly short of belief either, though, and they too had to make do without their main strike threat as Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink was nowhere to be seen. Nor for that matter was Thomas Gravesen but Celtic had coped without their two main summer signings in the past and Kenny Miller and Shaun Maloney weren't exactly shoddy replacements.
The only other change was Jiri Jarosik coming in from the start for Sno.
Hibs started at breakneck pace and had Celtic defending desperately in the first few minutes. Benji twisted Paul Telfer inside out on the left before sliding a diagonal ball into Steven Fletcher's feet. The youngster spun and shot from 16 yards but it was deflected for a corner. On the other side of the pitch, Sproule and Steven Whittaker were testing Lee Naylor and the full-back's burst into the box in the ninth minute needed a lunge from McManus to divert the danger.
But Celtic survived only two more minutes before their defence was punctured in spectacular fashion.
David Murphy's pass found Benji, who turned inside McManus in the box, forcing the defender to stick out a hand. …