Motherwell crashed out of the Scottish Cup at the quarter-final stage after failing to overcome a two-goal deficit against Hibernian.
The home side’s odds of progressing to the semi-finals increased dramatically within the first minute after Bevis Mugabi’s wreckless lunge gave the Steelmen a challenge they fought hard to overcome.
Then a first-half double from Norweigan striker Elias Melkersen’s looked certain to allow Hibs to comfortably claim a semi-final spot at ‘Well’s expense for the second consecutive season.
However, Joe Efford’s opportunist goal just before half-time set the scene for a stirring second half from the Steelmen. But despite commanding most of the second period Motherwell failed to find a second goal as Hibs, despite having a one-man advantage for so long, desperately held on for the narrowest of wins.
Graham Alexander once again made numerous changes to his starting line-up for this quarter-final tie.
In came Mugabi at right-back, with Dean Cornelius and Nathan McGinley joining Liam Donnelly in midfield. Joe Efford and Kevin van Veen were partnered up front with Jordan Roberts taking Kaiyne Woolery’s place.
With both teams finding goals and wins hard to come by in 2022, the lure of a Scottish Cup semi-final place was seen as an ideal opportunity to kick start their respective seasons.
There was a terrific cup atmosphere with just over 8,000 fans inside Fir Park for this midday clash.
Hibs had barely kicked off facing a massive travelling support when Motherwell were reduced to 10 men. Mugabi’s high tackle on Josh Doig left Willie Collum with no option but to reach for his red card with less than 60 seconds played.
Five minutes later Roberts’ late challenge earned him a yellow card as tempers on both sides threatened to spill over.
Hibs came close to using their extra man advantage after nine minutes when only a superb left-handed save from Liam Kelly prevented Drey Wright from opening the scoring.
A minute later the referee was back in his top pocket again this time to show Melkerson a yellow card.
Motherwell seemed undaunted by the loss of Mugabi and Van Veen forced two corners as the home support rallied behind their depleted team.
And from the second corner into a packed box ‘Well almost snatched the lead. But after Juhani Ojala’s shot was parried by Matt Macey, Roberts failed to connect with the loose ball inside the six-yard box.
However, it was the Easter Road mem who made the breakthrough after 15 minutes. Sylvester Jasper worked his way into the box on the right and his cross picked out Melkerson whose header from four yards flashed past Kelly. That gave Shaun Maloney’s men and the Hibs fans behind Kelly’s goal a huge boost.
It took another good save from Kelly in the 31st minute when Jasper’s cross from the left eluded everyone forcing the ‘Well keeper to dive low to his left and smother the ball.
The Fir Park ‘keeper was beaten five minutes later when Hibs doubled their lead and should have effectively killed the tie.
On-loan Fulham midfielder Jasper was again the provider with a measured lofted pass over the struggling Ojala and into Melkersen’s path. The striker had time to chest the ball down and advance to the edge of the box before driving the ball low past the helpless Kelly and make it 2-0.
Three minutes from the break and out of nothing ‘Well grabbed a lifeline.
Roberts’ shot on the right found its way to Efford 10 yards out and he chested the ball towards goal. His quick reactions caught out Macey who watched the ball hit the foot of his right-hand post before rolling over the goal line to make it 2-1.
Although Kelly had another fine save from Wright’s rising shot the end of an action-packed first half came with ‘Well chasing an equaliser.
The break gave Alexander the chance to reorganise his side Stephen O’Donnell coming on for the injured Ojala, Lamie moving to the centre of the defence and McGinley returning to left back.
Even minus a man that gave Motherwell a more balanced look. And O’Donnell almost made the most of his introduction when he worked his way to the byeline before drilling the ball low across the face of Macey’s goal and just begging a touch from two yards to send it into the net.
After 62 minutes Donnelly latched onto a loose ball from Josh Campbell and his powerful drive from 25 yards had the Hibs ‘keeper racing to his right to see the ball narrowly past his post.
‘Well players then encouraged the referee to produce a red card when Jasper, previously booked for simulation, tripped McGinley wide on the right. Donnelly curled the resultant free-kick towards the six-yard box and Sondre Solholm’s glancing header had Macey gripping the ball on his goal line as Efford and Van Veen hovered for a slip.
With 20 minutes remaining the Hibs players looked increasingly uncomfortable as ‘Well pressed the visitor’s goal in search of an equaliser.
Donnelly again came close after 72 minutes when following O’Donnell’s long throw the ball came out to the ‘Well midfielder but his measured header sailed just over Macey’s crossbar as the 3,300 Hibs’ fans behind his goal became nervously quieter.
That forced Maloney into a double substitution as the Hibs boss ensured that his men held on to their slender lead.
With eight minutes remaining Alexander injected fresh and fast legs into the home attack when Woolery replaced Roberts.
Then after Kelly held a Christian Doidge header, Woolery came close to forcing the game into extra-time.
A great break from the middle of the park saw Cornelius and Van Veen combine to release the Well winger but cutting in from the corner of the box his drive screamed across and beyond Macey’s right hand post.
In a final attempt to force an extra 30 minutes Conner Shields came on as ‘Well went four up front for the four added minutes.
Macey was booked for time wasting as Hibs held on to deny the Fir Park men an equaliser their brave second half performance deserved.