Hibs are well on course to claim their first top-six finish in the Premiership in eight years, but boss Neil Lennon has his sights on an even bigger target – a place in next season’s Europa League.
Such an achievement, few would argue, would be notable for a club newly returned to the top flight of Scottish football after a three-year absence, Lennon and his players having taken many plaudits for having hoisted themselves into fourth place at present.
Their current ranking might just be enough to clinch European football but it is by no means a guarantee with the destiny of this season’s Scottish Cup likely to be a deciding factor.
Scotland has one Champions League place – which will surely again go to Celtic as they home in on a seventh successive title – and three Europa League spots up for grabs. One of those places will go to the cup winners which means that should Brendan Rodgers’ players complete back-to-back trebles or the trophy goes to either the second or third-placed teams in the Premiership – currently Aberdeen and Rangers respectively – then fourth place would be enough to have that club’s supporters looking out their passports.
While Hibs enjoy a seven-point cushion over Capital rivals Hearts with 12 games to go, Lennon still has climbing a place – or even two – very much in mind. Aberdeen currently lie eight points ahead and Rangers five but there’s no doubt Hibs’ victory at Ibrox last weekend kept hopes of catching Graeme Murty’s side alive when defeat would almost certainly have ended any notion that the gap could be overcome.
“Why not?” was Lennon’s reply when, in the wake of that victory in Govan, he was asked if his players should be thinking of “zeroing in” on Rangers, those goals from John McGinn and Jamie Maclaren having cut the Glasgow side’s advantage to a mere two points at that juncture before a midweek win over Partick Thistle edged them further ahead again.
Lennon’s optimism sprang from the fact his side had just won three out of four league matches following the winter break, the Easter Road outfit having apparently found a new impetus after his injury-hit squad had seemingly lost their way towards the end of 2017 having posted just two wins in nine matches.
However, Lennon’s transfer activity in January looks promising, new strikers Jamie Maclaren and Florian Kamberi already looking a more than useful partnership with both having notched their first goals for the club while Scott Allan returned to produce a dazzling first-half performance against Rangers to suggest he can provide that spark of creativity which has been missing.
Allan will certainly complement the powerful running of John McGinn, who had been widely touted to be leaving, and Dylan McGeouch’s promptings in a midfield achnored by Marvin Bartley.
And with a substantial injury list finally beginning to shorten, few will be writing off Hibs’ chances of forcing their way past Rangers at least.
As such, next weekend becomes a massive one in the calendar with Hibs hosting Aberdeen while Hearts travel to face Rangers, the onus being on both Capital sides to take the three points, Craig Levein’s players seven points adrift of their city rivals but nursing their own ambition to end the season above them.
While wins for both would maintain the difference between them, such a scenario would undoubtedly be beneficial to Hibs who would narrow the gap on both the sides ahead of them.
Easier said than done, though. Derek McInnes’ team have won twice against Hibs this season, narrowly at Easter Road when the Dons boss was magnanimous enough to admit they were lucky to escape with all three points, while luck didn’t come into it at Pittodrie as Lennon’s players suffered a 4-1 mauling with Gary Mackay-Steven claiming a hat-trick.
Hearts did claim a point on their last trip to Ibrox but were beaten by Rangers at their temporary home of Murrayfield although they have undoubtedly become a much tougher proposition with Levein back at the helm.
Throughout the season, all managers and players claim not to take too much notice of other club’s results, but we are now at the stage where, one would suspect, they’ll be doing exactly that as the “split” comes ever closer with all anxious to position themselves as best they can before those final five dog-eat-dog fixtures. There will, as ever, be more than a few twists and turns with an eyebrow-raising result here and there before then but, on the face of it, there are a number of key fixtures for all combatants.
For Hibs, the one big match following the visit of the Dons will be the next Edinburgh derby on March 9 while Aberdeen still have to face Celtic – who have already beaten them 3-0 home and away – at Pittodrie while they play Hearts at Tynecastle in the final fixture before the split. And for Rangers, their biggest match in that period will be the visit of Celtic on March 11, all games that will have McInnes, Murty, Lennon and Levein dashing to discover the outcome of each and to work out how it impacts on their own hopes.