A RECURRING theme of the three Edinburgh derbies so far this season has been Hibs’ inability to make life difficult for Hearts.
The Tynecastle side have won each of the three encounters by a two-goal margin, but, in doing so, haven’t been required to do anything special.
Hibs have never been blown out of the water by their city rivals; there have been no meek capitulations and 4-0 thrashings of late. But the fact Hearts have plundered a maximum nine-point haul from the Capital collisions has been down to a combination of Hibs being fairly punchless and Hearts generally displaying a ruthlessness that allows them to seize the initiative and then strike when the time is right.
The Hibs defence has never been overly abject and the Hearts attack hasn’t been particularly swashbuckling in the three most recent derbies. It is simply that Hearts have been able to gain a foothold, enjoy the lion’s share of possession and generally stifle the life out of their city rivals.
Leigh Griffiths and Garry O’Connor, Hibs’ highly-regarded strike pair, have failed to make any real impression in the derby matches this season, but this is primarily due to the fact Hearts have been able to boss much of the play and simultaneously nullify the Hibs supply line. If the Easter Road side are to have a chance of glory in tomorrow’s Scottish Cup final, the feeling is that they will need to get Griffiths and O’Connor into the game in dangerous areas.
This will require a far more competitive showing from the Hibs midfield than has been evident in the last three derbies. Throughout those games, Ian Black, the Hearts playmaker, was effectively allowed to do as he pleased. And pleased he did so, with a particularly impressively display in the New Year derby followed up by another superb performance at Tynecastle in March which was capped by a sensational pass for Craig Beattie’s opening goal.
Hibs need the men in their engine room to try and emulate Black tomorrow. In their favour, they are likely to start with a midfield unit which is untarnished by previous derby defeats. A central trio of Jorge Claros, Lewis Stevenson and Isaiah Osbourne is likely to be aided by Tom Soares, who will be charged with roaming around in support of the strikers, and, if all play to their potential, there is no reason why Hibs shouldn’t be competitive in what is sure to be a key area of the park.
With Black and his reliable sidekick Darren Barr patrolling central midfield, Hearts, barring an extreme bout of cup final nerves, are unlikely to be found wanting. Barr will shield the defence, use the ball intelligently and provide a platform for Black to make the play. With any four from the quintet of Rudi Skacel, Craig Beattie, Stephen Elliott, Suso Santana and Andrew Driver buzzing about ahead of and around them, the two engine-room grafters know they won’t be short of support from diligent and creative colleagues. Skacel will be asked to support the main striker, whether it be from a central or wide position, but he will also drop deep to help Barr and Black when required.
In Driver and Elliott, Hearts have a couple of players who, even when things are not going their way, will run themselves into the ground for the cause. In short, if Hibs are to have a hope of at least containing their imposing foes, they need their middlemen operating in tandem to a reasonably high level.
Stevenson will have to be at his tigerish best. In fact, this is as good a time as any for Hibs’ player of the year to finally replicate the display he managed as a teenager at Hampden when the Easter Road won the League Cup in 2007. They could also do with the Pitbull, Jorge Claros, living up to his nickname. The Honduran has looked neat and tidy so far, but has yet to truly set the heather alight.
Similarly, the athletic Osbourne needs to produce the type of domineering box-to-box display which he has hinted at fleetingly. The Englishman has all the attributes to make things tick for Hibs, but has hitherto been unable to do so on a consistent basis. The same can also be said of Soares, who has just began to kick on since his double at Kilmarnock in February.
With James McPake’s influence seemingly having shored up the Hibs defence, and O’Connor and Griffiths ensuring they have a strike force as dangerous as most in Scotland, the big question is whether the department in between – the midfield – can bind the team together effectively enough to make things tough for Hearts.
The Tynecastle side are capable of winning tomorrow’s final without being at their best; Hibs probably aren’t. With this in mind, the Easter Road side can afford no passengers. Their midfield must stand up and be counted.