Anthony Brown: Derby down to who has killer instinct

Osman Sow is the potential matchwinner, but the likes of Alex Harris, below, could swing it for Hibs
Osman Sow is the potential matchwinner, but the likes of Alex Harris, below, could swing it for Hibs
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Not since the 2012 Scottish Cup final has there been such genuine intrigue in the build-up to an Edinburgh derby.

In the two years or so that have followed that Hampden showdown, both Capital clubs have generally endured a pretty grim time of it, culminating in their respective relegations from the Premiership at the end of last season.

It is early days, of course, but it is hard to escape the feeling that both clubs, having surely hit rock bottom last term, are now on the road to recovery. Under the meticulous leadership of Craig Levein, Hearts’ director of football, and Leeann Dempster, Hibs’ chief executive, respectively, root-and-branch structural overhaul is being undertaken with a view to preparing the clubs for a fruitful long-term future.

If things go as planned, the chances are we will see Hearts and Hibs back at the top end of Scottish football before too long. For the time being, however, they must settle for trying to get the better of each other – as well as Rangers – in what will be a captivating Championship promotion battle. Although long-term prosperity has to be the chief objective for both of these Edinburgh institutions, this week the focus turns to the 90 minutes of battle that will commence at a raucous Tynecastle on Sunday afternoon.

While Hearts, following their dramatic victory over Rangers, may be considered favourites, there is a hint of something exciting brewing at Hibs, and it is not beyond possibility that they could turn up on Sunday, play like they did at Ibrox in the Petrofac Training Cup last week, and win all three points.

Despite the traumatic events of last season, Liam Craig and Scott Robertson did not suddenly become bad players.

With Alan Stubbs and his amiable Scouse manner having seemingly removed the weight of the world from their shoulders, they can surely be expected to go toe to toe with Morgaro Gomis and Prince Buaben, the two Hearts midfielders of whom Robertson was once deemed an equal at Dundee United.

Likewise, when playing with a smile on their faces, Hibs’ young attackers, Jason Cummings, Danny Handling, Sam Stanton and Alex Harris, are not vastly inferior to their Hearts counterparts, Sam Nicholson, Billy King, Jamie Walker and Dale Carrick.

In defence, Hibs will have a slight edge as new recruit David Gray has looked like the first strong, marauding right-back they have had since Steven Whittaker, while Hearts, bereft of the burgeoning Callum Paterson, will have to rely on a centre-back playing out of position or an untried rookie in Liam Smith.

At left-back, there is little to choose between Lewis Stevenson and Kevin McHattie, while it remains to be seen how the goalkeepers, Scott Gallacher and the goalscoring Mark Oxley, will cope with the heat of an Edinburgh derby.

With both sides looking pretty adept at retaining possession, it may come down to who has the stronger underbelly and the instinct to go in for the kill when required.

Historically, that has usually been Hearts. Robbie Neilson’s team looked ultra-resilient at Ibrox, with Danny Wilson particularly strong at the back, while early indications are that Alim Ozturk, having watched from the stands as Hearts beat Hibs 2-0 at Tynecastle in 2012, will have the temperament to handle an occasion like this Sunday.

Having quelled the threat of Rangers pair Kris Boyd and Kenny Miller, Hearts’ centre-backs are unlikely to be overly fazed by the presence of Farid El Alagui in the Hibs attack. Nonetheless, with any combination of Stanton, Harris, Cummings, Handling, Scott Allan and Matt Kennedy buzzing about around the big striker, Hibs are sure to be a more dangerous attacking proposition than they have been on recent visits to Tynecastle.

With the ever-improving Paul Hanlon and the sturdy Jordon Forster looking like they could forge a long-term central-defensive partnership, it is hard to envisage Stubbs’ side, with everyone now pulling in the same direction, surrendering meekly. Much will depend, however, on whether or not the visitors cope with Osman Sow, Hearts’ impressive new centre-forward and an obvious potential match-winner.