The hazardous route to second place has been outlined – now Hibs have to try and negotiate it.
With the top six of the Scottish Premiership as strong as it has been in recent memory after red-hot Kilmarnock joined the country’s five biggest city clubs in making the cut, the Easter Road side were always destined to face a rocky road in their pursuit to finish best of the rest behind champions-in-waiting Celtic.
After the release of the post-split fixtures yesterday, Hibs now know they face tricky home games against Celtic and Killie, followed by a formidable away double-header against Hearts and Aberdeen, before their campaign concludes with a potential Europa League shootout at home to Rangers. Within this mettle-testing five-game sequence, Neil Lennon’s in-form team will have to collect four points more than both Aberdeen and Rangers if they are to mark their first season back in the top flight by finishing in second place. It is clearly a tall order but, after concluding the pre-split fixtures with a nine-game unbeaten run which included six victories, they are the form team of the three in the battle to finish runners-up to Celtic.
“Hibs have been very consistent recently and that’s why they find themselves in such a good position,” former Hibs manager Alan Stubbs told the Evening News. “I don’t see any reason why they can’t continue their form until the end of the season. Even though they’re going to be facing the other five best teams in the league, Neil won’t be fearing coming up against any of them. Some people are for and some are against the split, but it means you’re guaranteed to have really good games against teams in the same area of the league. Hibs have got three big games at home that will probably be sell-outs and they’ve also got big away games at Hearts and Aberdeen. It’s going to be an exciting run-in from a Hibs point of view. It’s all to play for.”
Starting the run-in three points behind both Rangers and Aberdeen means Hibs are the outsiders in the battle for second. While predicting how things will unfold over the next month is a tricky business given the number of fixtures that look closely matched on paper, it seems reasonable to assume that Hibs will be doing well to ensure they remain within striking distance until the last day of the season, when they will have a clear chance to go in for the kill at home to Rangers. On the same day, Aberdeen – who have routinely struggled against the two Glasgow sides in recent years – visit Celtic Park. While Stubbs has full confidence in his old side to enjoy a strong finish to the season, he knows it might not be enough to guarantee second place. However, he feels that wherever they finish, this season will go down as a major success considering they were playing in Scotland’s second tier one year ago. “In terms of trying to get second place, it’s obviously important to keep themselves within touching distance going into the Rangers game on the last day,” said Stubbs. “But when you look at the whole picture, wherever Hibs finish, it’s been a really positive season for them. A lot of people expected them to have an impact on the Premiership this season, and they’ve certainly done that with the results and performances they’ve had. Whatever happens in the last five games, I think everybody at Hibs can look back on a really positive and rewarding first season back in the Premiership.”
Although Lennon has already acknowledged that Hibs have exceeded his expectations this season, he is sensing a chance to finish second after a strong run of form over the past couple of months. Having won several trophies as a player and manager with Celtic, he knows what is required to negotiate the business end of a campaign when the pressure is on and the stakes are at their highest.
“Neil’s obviously been involved in this type of situation while at Celtic, and that experience can only help Hibs,” said Stubbs. “But, from the players’ perspective, it’s just a case of trying to maintain the level of consistency they’ve been showing all season. They’re unbeaten in nine games, so Neil will be really pleased with that. Even when they have had a setback, they’ve always bounced back really quickly which tells you a lot about what you’ve got in your dressing-room.”
Hibs could hardly have asked for a tougher start to their post-split fixtures as Celtic head to the Capital knowing that a victory will seal them the title. The Easter Road side have competed well against the champions-elect this season, with two draws and a couple of narrow defeats in Glasgow. Although Lennon has strong links to Celtic, Stubbs expects Hibs to be fully motivated to ensure that Brendan Rodgers’ team don’t get the chance to party in Leith. “I don’t think any manager would want any team to win the league at their ground,” said Stubbs. “Even though it’s Celtic, Neil wouldn’t want that to happen. He’ll be keen to prolong it and make sure they win it somewhere else the following week. Everybody knows Celtic will win the league – it’s just a matter of where and when. But Neil and the Hibs fans won’t want Celtic winning it on their patch, that’s for sure.”
Saturday, April 21: Celtic (h) 12.30pm Live on BT Sport
Saturday, April 28: Kilmarock (h) 3pm
Saturday, May 5: Aberdeen (a) 3.00pm
Wednesday, May 9: Hearts (a) 7.45pm Live on BT Sport
Sunday, May 13: Rangers (h) 12.30pm Live on BT Sport
Sunday, April 22: Hearts (h) 12.30pm Live on Sky Sports
Sunday, April 29: Celtic (a) noon Live on Sky Sports
Saturday, May 5: Kilmarnock (h) 3.00pm
Tuesday, May 8: Aberdeen (a) 7.45pm Live on Sky Sports
Sunday, May 13: Hibs (a) 12.30pm Live on BT Sport
Saturday, April 21: Kilmarnock (a) 3.00pm
Friday, April 27: Hearts (h) 7.45pm Live on BT Sport
Saturday, May 5: Hibs (a) 3.00pm
Tuesday, May 8: Rangers (h) 7.45pm Live on Sky Sports
Sunday, May 13: Celtic (a) 12.30pm Live on Sky Sports