Anthony Brown: Injection of quality to boost Edinburgh derby

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It may be only ten months since the last Edinburgh derby, but the changing face of both the Hearts and Hibs squads has been significant.

In a nod to a sense of stability not always enjoyed by the two Capital clubs in previous years, both head coaches, Robbie Neilson and Alan Stubbs, remain in situ and are intent on maintaining the steady and assured development of their respective teams. This mutual desire for rapid improvement and a swift return to the top end of Scottish football has resulted in an ongoing overhaul of playing staff which, even allowing for Hibs’ current status as a second-tier team, has left the two teams cast among the strongest in the country.

Of the 22 players who started in the Easter Road side’s 2-0 home victory over Hearts in the Championship on April 12 last year, it would be ambitious to anticipate any more than ten kicking off this Sunday’s Scottish Cup fifth-round meeting.

Mark Oxley, Lewis Stevenson, Paul Hanlon, Dylan McGeouch and Jason Cummings are all likely to start for Hibs while the same could be said of Hearts quartet Neil Alexander, Callum Paterson, Alim Ozturk and Miguel Pallardo. Beyond those nine, reasonable doubt surrounds the participation on Sunday of Hibs duo Liam Fontaine and Fraser Fyvie, and their Hearts counterparts Jamie Walker and Osman Sow. Martin Boyle and Farid El Alagui, both prominent figures for Hibs in the previous derby, have found themselves on the periphery this season, with the latter still plagued by fitness issues, while seven of the 22 starters from the April showdown are removed from the equation entirely by virtue of having left the Capital, either temporarily or permanently. Of the 14 substitutes that day, only Sam Nicholson and James Keatings have a realistic chance of any kind of involvement, although the latter will this time be representing Hibs after moving across Edinburgh last summer. There are other stalwarts from last season, such as Hibs captain David Gray and Hearts midfielder Prince Buaben, who didn’t play that day due to injury but are likely to feature prominently on Sunday. Generally, however, the theme at Hearts and Hibs over the past year has been of players being phased out and replaced by perceived upgrades.

Adam Eckersley has been a symbol of the turnover at the two clubs. A year ago, the Mancunian had seemingly established himself as Hearts’ first-choice left-back. By the time the last derby came round, however, he had been told he would not have his contract renewed in the summer. Eckersley has since spent four months at Hibs without kicking a ball and last week pitched up in Canada. His replacement at Hearts, Juwon Oshaniwa, arrived amid a wave of hype after a protracted transfer last summer, but the Nigerian internationalist has toiled to adapt to Scottish football. In recent weeks, he has found himself third in the pecking order behind two centre-backs, Igor Rossi and Jordan McGhee. Ironically, Eckersley, who would have struggled to dislodge Stevenson at Hibs even if fully fit, appears to be exactly the type of player Hearts could have done with this season. Although Oshaniwa still has plenty time to come good, the present state of affairs at left-back gives credence to the notion that there is very little between the two squads despite the fact they are operating out of different divisions.

Oshaniwa’s travails thus far are not in keeping with an otherwise steady bout of transfer activity from Hearts, however. Juanma Delgado and Gavin Reilly, although not yet totally proven in maroon, look accomplished replacements for Genero Zeefuik and Keatings. Filling the void left by Sow will be a different ball game altogether when he moves to China, although Abiola Dauda has arrived on loan with a decent pedigree.

Blazej Augustyn and Rossi - the latter is suspended for Sunday – have proved excellent replacements for departed centre-backs Danny Wilson and Brad McKay, while John Souttar has added further strength to that area of the team. Arnaud Djoum has already significantly bolstered Hearts’ midfield, and Don Cowie can be expected to do likewise. With Sunday in mind, Hearts will be grateful to have options in the engine room as midfield is arguably Hibs’ strongest department. Despite the exits of Liam Craig, Scott Robertson, Scott Allan and Sam Stanton since last season, the arrivals of Liam Henderson and John McGinn, allied to the continued improvement of McGeouch, mean Hibs possess one of the most accomplished midfield units in Scotland.

The same could be said of their attack if on-loan Celtic striker Anthony Stokes can click with top scorer Jason Cummings. Hibs’ defence has retained a familiar look, with Oxley, Gray, Stevenson, Hanlon and Fontaine continuing to flourish this season, while the arrival of Darren McGregor and Niklas Gunnarsson has ensured high-calibre competition and cover.

Hibs have showed they are a Premiership-quality team by vanquishing three top-flight teams in pretty emphatic fashion in the League Cup. This weekend provides Stubbs’ side with their sternest test yet, though. After four derbies last term threw up a win apiece and two draws, Sunday’s showdown allows us a chance to gauge which of these teams has progressed most rapidly since the last Capital collision.

The teams when Hibs and Hearts last met on Sunday, April 12, 2015:

Hibs: Oxley, Forster, Hanlon, Fontaine, Boyle, S Allan, Fyvie, McGeouch, Stevenson, Cummings (Malonga 68) (Dja Djedje 87), El Alagui. Unused subs: Cerny, Craig, Stanton, Handling, Dunsmore.

Hearts: Alexander, Ozturk, Wilson, McHattie (Nicholson 37), Paterson, Pallardo, Gomis, Eckersley, Walker, Sow, Zeefuik (King 77). Unused subs: Gallacher, El Hassnaoui, Keatings, Anderson, McKay.