The level of tinkering Alan Stubbs has been able to indulge in over recent matches has underlined the strength in depth at Hibs.
Mainstays like Liam Fontaine, Liam Henderson, Dylan McGeouch and Marvin Bartley have all had turns on the subs’ bench of late as the manager has tweaked his team for games they were expected to win.
This Sunday, though, Stubbs must whittle his carefully-assembled pool of players down to the 11 he feels are best equipped to remove the wind from the sails of the unbeaten league leaders and hot title favourites.
Using team selection from the last two months – when Hibs have been winning consistently – as a gauge, the likeliest XI to start at home to Rangers would be: Oxley, Gray, Hanlon, Fontaine, Stevenson, Bartley, McGeouch, McGinn, Henderson, Cummings, Malonga. That would leave the highly-regarded likes of Darren McGregor, Fraser Fyvie and James Keatings on the bench, although there are several permutations that Stubbs could come up with depending whether he opts to play 3-5-2 or 4-4-2.
“Alan Stubbs is spoilt for choice,” said former Hibs striker Tam McManus. “He’s got a great squad to pick from. I looked at the bench against Falkirk last week and then again against Raith and there were some really good players there. Any of those boys could easily play in the starting XI. Alan’s got a lot of decisions to make for Sunday, but he’ll be happy he’s got such a big pool to pick from.”
Hibs lined up with three at the back in Saturday’s win at Raith Rovers, but McManus believes one of the centre-backs – Paul Hanlon, McGregor or Fontaine – may have to make way for midfield enforcer Bartley to return to the fold.
“Alan is a quality manager and will have seen weaknesses in the Rangers team that he’ll feel Hibs can exploit, particularly at home, so he’ll pick the team he thinks is best to carry out the gameplan,” he said. “Rangers will probably just play one striker [Martyn Waghorn], the way they have all season, so Alan might decide he doesn’t want to play three centre-backs against one striker. It’s a case of horses for courses and he might look to bring in Bartley to shore up midfield. You might even see Dylan McGeouch or Liam Henderson dropping out, but the fact that’s even an option shows how strong the squad is.
“Fraser Fyvie is another guy I rate really highly and he’s been on the bench the last few games. They’re really well off in attack as well. Jason Cummings is scoring every week just now, Dominique Malonga’s hit a bit of form, then you’ve got Keatings, Martin Boyle and Islam Feruz. There are guys not even getting on the bench at Hibs who would get into plenty other teams.”
In recent games against Rangers, Hibs have generally competed well but been undermined by missed chances. Despite losing the play-off semi-final first leg at Ibrox in May, the Petrofac Cup game in July, and the opening league game at Ibrox in August, Hibs had clear scoring chances to ensure different outcomes in those matches. McManus believes the front two of Malonga and Cummings are now in such good form that they are unlikely to let Rangers off the hook this time round.
“Rangers look a little bit dodgy at the back when they get tested and they’ll certainly be tested on Sunday,” he said. “But it’s massively important that Hibs take advantage when they’re on top. Both teams will have spells in the game but Hibs, in the past few games against Rangers, have missed some big chances. If they take those chances, then they probably come away with a victory. Hibs will always create chances with the players they’ve got. They’ve definitely got the firepower now. Malonga splits opinion but he’s definitely got quality and he’s showing that just now. He’s linking up well with Cummings, whose confidence is sky high. Those two are very dangerous at the moment. If Hibs can get chances to those guys, they’ll definitely score goals.”
Hibs are eight points behind the leaders ahead of Sunday’s top-of-the-Championship showdown. “Hibs have to at least draw,” said McManus. “If Rangers win, they’ll be too far ahead. But if Hibs can win, they’ll get a huge confidence lift and they’ll be right back in it. It looked like Rangers would kick on after they beat Hibs at Ibrox but it’s all credit to Hibs that they’ve kept hanging on because Rangers have started unbelievably well. Hibs have really picked up over the last couple of months.
“They’ve got a steel about them now where they look like they’re going to win every game. If they can take that into Sunday then they can win, no doubt about it. Rangers have a bigger budget, but I don’t think there’s much of a gulf between the teams. We’ll find out on Sunday one way or another, but in terms of the last month or two, you’d say Hibs have arguably been the more impressive team. They’ll go into it full of confidence.”