Neil Lennon has challenged Hibs to replicate the intensity levels they showed against Hearts as they bid to get past Ayr United in today’s Scottish Cup quarter-final and secure a return to Hampden.
The Easter Road side have been on a poor run of league form of late, with no wins in their last four. The 3-1 victory over their city rivals in the Scottish Cup fifth-round replay ten days ago was a standout performance for Lennon’s team, and the manager is wary of the notion that his side appear to be subconsciously raising their game for the higher-profile matches and taking their eye off the ball in others.
With Ayr having taken four points from their two league visits to Easter Road this season, Lennon has called on his team to ensure they approach today’s last-eight showdown with the same mindset that they took into the recent Edinburgh derby.
“The way we’re playing could give Ayr a bit of confidence but I want us to nip that in the bud,” said Lennon. “I want us to be strong and forceful and play as strongly as we did against Hearts.
“I’m greedy – I’d like to win both the league and the cup. But we’ll need to play better than what we’ve shown in the league over the past couple of weeks.
“I like a day out [at a final] but I’m not getting too far ahead of myself. In a quarter-final anything can happen. This tie is dangerous, Ian McCall is very canny. I watched them on Tuesday night when they beat Raith, and if there is one thing Ayr will be, it’s hard to beat and very motivated.”
Lennon publicly castigated his players following their 1-1 draw at Raith Rovers a fortnight ago but resisted the temptation to do likewise after Wednesday’s defeat against bottom-of-the-table St Mirren. He is confident he will get a positive response from his players today.
“I’ve got a good bunch,” he said. “We’re not Celtic, and at times I have to realise that myself as well. They’re going to have their inconsistencies. That’s why I wasn’t too hard on them after the game, I was disappointed with the way we played, obviously. But I gave credit to the opposition, they played pretty well. We were short of our standards and that happens sometimes. It was our first defeat in three months, so the consistency has been there over the piece.
“We’re in a great position here, we’re top of the league, whatever margin it is. We have a quarter-final at home, we have a great opportunity of getting into the semi-finals. There’s nothing to fear, you know. Take the opportunity because they don’t come around too often. We’ve put ourselves in a great position.”
Although Lennon is focused on reaching the Scottish Cup semi-finals today, he insists Hibs mustn’t allow their league campaign to unravel. At this time last year, when Alan Stubbs’ side were still in both knockout tournaments, they went on a run of one league win in eight which killed off their title bid. “This time last year we went on a run of one win in eight, so we have to nip that in the bud as quickly as possible,” said Lennon. “That’s four games now in the league, three draws and a defeat, so we have to rectify that quickly.
“Alan said last season [the cups] took a lot out of them and it’s starting to manifest itself a little bit mentally and physically again. I don’t want them saving their best performances for the cup again. We haven’t played anywhere near as well as we did against Hearts in any of our league games over the last few weeks. That’s definitely a psychological thing rather than a physical thing.”