Dundee United have snuck up on the blind-side in the Championship title race and, from Hibs’ perspective, are sitting a little too close to top spot for comfort as the campaign approaches the midway point.
Friday night’s top-of-the-table showdown at Tannadice will not necessarily decide who wins the league, but its magnitude to the Easter Road side should not be understated.
At the start of the season, it was widely felt that, with Neil Lennon – a serial winner in Scotland – at the helm, the Edinburgh club would pull away from the pack and finally secure promotion at the third attempt with a bit to spare.
This school of thought was largely based on the theory that, with two years experience and a settled squad buoyed by Scottish Cup glory, Hibs would be ready to get off to a fast start, while United, the only club realistically equipped resource-wise to challenge them, would need time to get over the disappointment of relegation and also to acclimatise to playing in a new division.
Yet, as we prepare to enter December, the Arabs, on the back of a ten-game unbeaten run in all competitions, have the chance to pull level with Hibs if they win on Friday. This scenario was not in the script for the pre-season title favourites, but it is one which has come about as a result of Hibs spilling nine points during a four-game autumn run at a time when the slow-starting United were beginning to find their feet under Ray McKinnon.
Although Lennon’s team have rediscovered their form since that slump in September and October, it is hard to escape the feeling that they need to properly reassert their authority by knocking their resurgent rivals out of their stride.
While a draw will be enough to maintain Hibs’ three-point advantage, it would also have the effect of imbuing United – who have already taken a point at Easter Road this season – with further belief that they can maintain a title challenge.
A home win, meanwhile, would see confidence levels at Tannadice soar to new heights, while also inducing serious doubt in the Hibs camp at a time when talismanic midfielder John McGinn is facing a couple of months on the sidelines, star striker Jason Cummings is enduring a form dip, and the likes of Fraser Fyvie, James Keatings and Dylan McGeouch are all battling to overcome fitness issues.
With so much pressure on the Edinburgh club to achieve promotion this season, they can ill afford to enter the business end of the campaign with the title race still in the melting pot.
Hibs boast the strongest squad on paper but, if United, not carrying the same level of expectation, were still in contention around April time, there is every chance they would be in a position to play with more freedom than their Easter Road counterparts.
The dangers of allowing an underdog hope don’t need spelled out to Hibs after they were steadily pegged back by Falkirk last season and ultimately pipped to second place. In order to avoid being bogged down in a high-pressure slog with United for the next five months, Lennon’s team could desperately do with opening some clear daylight, starting on Friday evening.
United are marginal favourites for the Tannadice showdown – largely due to home advantage and Hibs’ personnel issues – but the Easter Road side’s solid defensive unit should give them plenty belief for their trip north.
Even allowing for the excellent form of the 11-goal Tony Andreu since being added to the United attack three months ago, Lennon’s team are well capable of coming away from Tannadice with another clean sheet. If they do that, they give themselves an obvious chance of winning the game.
In the absence of McGinn and others, the Hibs squad could do with a catalytic early-December result – and the psychological effect of a six-point cushion – to propel them through the mentally-challenging festive period. Ideally, they need to look at starting the new year with a good gap beginning to emerge.
By contrast, however, the prospect of being level-pegging with an upwardly-mobile side boasting an 11-game unbeaten run would be enough to ensure tetchiness in the Hibs camp at a stage in the campaign when they are unable to call on their driving force, as former captain Kevin Thomson described McGinn in yesterday’s Evening News.
All things considered, Friday’s game represents comfortably Hibs’ highest-stakes match since their Scottish Cup final triumph six months ago. To ensure a relatively serene Christmas for the Easter Road support, this emerging United side – the only clear danger to their promotion hopes – need the wind removed from their sails.