James McPake today claimed Scottish Cup rivals Celtic will be as fearful of Hibs hotshot Leigh Griffiths as the Easter Road outfit are of Hoops hitmen Gary Hooper and Anthony Stokes.
Griffiths’ 28 goals this season saw the 22-year-old pick up a host of player of the year awards, vindicating, the Hibs skipper insisted, his view that “Sparky” is the best striker in the SPL. McPake said: “I said it at Christmas, I said it before the semi-final and I’ll say it again now: Leigh, in my opinion, is the best striker in the league and there’s no doubt Celtic will be as fearful of him as we are of any of their strikers.”
McPake admits Neil Lennon’s side go into Sunday’s Hampden showpiece as firm favourites, but he takes heart from the fact there has been nothing between the teams in this season’s SPL head-to-head record, with a win apiece and a draw.
The centre-back said: “I think it’s always easier going into games as underdogs and there’s no two ways about it, we are underdogs. Celtic won the league at a canter, they have top players and did well in Europe. If we beat them then everyone will put it down to it having been an off-day for them. But going by the games this season, we have been decent. We went to Celtic Park, drew 2-2 and gave a good account of ourselves. Then we scored early at Easter Road and defended great. It was as well as we had played all season although it was put down as a Celtic off-day.”
A 3-0 loss the week before Hibs’ semi-final against Falkirk, when they again fell three goals behind before mounting that stunning comeback to secure a second successive cup final, did, however, serve as a wake-up call for McPake and his team-mates. He said: “You need to be at your best against teams like Celtic and the quality they have.
“You cannot carry any passengers.”
Meanwhile, McPake is determined to win his fitness battle to lead Pat Fenlon’s players out at the national stadium although the Hibs boss has expressed his concerns as the former Livingston and Coventry City stopper seeks to overcome a back problem which flared up before the last derby, forcing him to miss his club’s last three matches.
McPake has had a painkilling injection and having trained yesterday he revealed he’d have been confident of being able to play had the game been today. However, with 19-year-old
Jordon Forster on standby to partner Paul Hanlon in central defence in what would be only his fourth first-team game, McPake insisted he’ll be totally upfront with Fenlon.
He said: “I feel fine just now and I am experienced enough to know if I am ready or not and I would be the first to put my hand up if not. I’m sure it won’t come down to me having to ask myself ‘Should I play in the
final or not?’ It will definitely not be as tight as that.
“The manager and the medical staff watching me in training will be able to see right away if my back is not ready. I took an injection in it last week and there are no issues with it being a gamble for me to play, or anything like that.
“I feel as if I am winning the battle at the moment.”