After a doggedly contested Scottish Cup semi-final – deferred from last season and played in filthy conditions – Hearts progressed to the final thanks to a Liam Boyce penalty kick in extra time and will meet the winner of Sunday's match between Celtic and Aberdeen.
The teams were locked at 1-1 over 90 minutes, after Craig Wighton’s opener for Hearts had been cancelled out by an equaliser from Christian Doidge.
Hibs could have settled the tie in overtime when Mihai Popescu was judged to have fouled Joe Newell in the box. Nisbet hit the bar from the spot and paid the price when Aidy White went down in a challenge from Paul McGinn for a penalty that was put away by Boyce to send Hearts through.
This was a day when, for once, the absent fans could be glad they were not present, especially the Hibs contingent, who would have been lashed by Storm Aiden driving rain into their customary stance in the East Stand.
Hearts had to do without the injured Josh Ginnelly and Elliott Frear, while Steven Naismith and Peter Haring were on the bench, with Jordan Roberts and Wighton starting. Hibs began with Josh Doig at left wing-back, rather than Lewis Stevenson, while Kyle Magennis started in midfield.
The foul conditions militated against measured football but both teams did well to muster cogent attacks, with Hearts settling first and winning a free- kick in a promising position near the edge of the Hibs box when Doig fouled Wighton, but the opportunity came to nothing. There was a scare for Paul Hanlon when Jamie Walker landed on the Hibs defender’s head in a challenge, but no damage was done.
It took half an hour for the contest to produce a highlight and it stemmed from a Martin Boyle cross from the right which was met in the middle of the Hearts box with an angled header by Nisbet. The ball looked destined for the back of the net but goalkeeper Craig Gordon twisted in flight to turn it aside with his fingertips.
Magennis also saw a dangerous shot blocked by Michael Smith but the match reached half-time without a breakthrough. It took until the hour mark for that welcome development to occur and Hearts were the beneficiaries when Olly Lee’s cross from the right was headed firmly beyond goalkeeper Ofir Marciano by Wighton.
The game then went long and six minutes later Hibs equalised in like fashion, in their case from a Joe Newell free-kick which Christian Doidge headed out of Gordon’s reach.
The game duly went to extra time, and Alex Gogic almost immediately scored with a drive from distance that struck a post. Before Celtic and Aberdeen get under way on Sunday in the other semi-final, Rangers could expand their lead at the top of the Scottish Premiership to nine points but they will have to win at Rugby Park against a Kilmarnock side who have disrupted them in recent times. Killie beat Steven Gerrard’s team in Ayrshire last February and their 2-1 advantage was also seen at Rugby Park in January and May 2019, in a season which also featured two 1-1 draws between the sides at Ibrox.
Rangers have already prevailed when the sides met in Govan in August and Kemar Roofe and Ryan Kent scored in a 2-0 win. Gerrard sees Sunday’s engagement as an opportunity to emphasise the overall improvement in performance of his squad. “At times, we’ve been disappointed and come away from there frustrated because the way we’ve actually played we’ve felt we deserved more,” Gerrard said.
“We’ve been in control on quite a few occasions and then the momentum has changed and the crowd had got behind them. I wouldn’t say they’ve stolen points off us but they’ve managed to knock us out of our stride. We know it’s a tricky game and our record is not as good as it should have been but it’s a clean, different game and we’re going there in good form. I’m confident that, if we perform to our level and what we’re capable of, then it can be enough.”
On Thursday, Rangers emphasised their credentials in a wider arena with their second successive Europa League group stage win, a 1-0 success against Lech Poznan, in which Alfredo Morelos arrived as a second-half substitute and scored, having been left out against Livingston at Ibrox last Sunday, following a brief appearance in the tie with Standard Liege in Belgium. “We felt that Alfredo needed that,” Gerrard said.
“He’d played a lot of football and he’d been away travelling to Colombia. He’s recently had his family move back over. He had a lot going on and was involved in a lot of speculation around his future.
“We felt it was the right time to take him out of the XI for a couple of games to freshen him up and hopefully it will help him. It did on Thursday night but now we need him to build on that 30 minutes and try to get him back to his best form because that will be a huge help for us.”