Analysis: Paul Heckingbottom right to focus on Europe as Hibs hit top form and rivals falter

Vykintas Slivka, left, and Mark Milligan, right, celebrate at full time after defeating Hearts in the derby with two-goal Daryl Horgan
Vykintas Slivka, left, and Mark Milligan, right, celebrate at full time after defeating Hearts in the derby with two-goal Daryl Horgan
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From struggling to make the top six a little over two months ago, Hibs now find themselves in the unlikely position of having a chance to qualify for Europe as they embark on their post-split fixtures this weekend.

Six points adrift of the two sides in third and fourth place - Kilmarnock and Aberdeen - with five games to play is the scenario for Paul Heckingbottom’s buoyant team ahead of Sunday’s visit from Celtic. A top-three finish guarantees a crack at Europa League qualification, while fourth place will bring the same prize if champions-in-waiting Celtic defeat Hearts in the Scottish Cup final. If the Tynecastle side, currently sixth in the Premiership, win the trophy, they will go into Europe in the summer at the expense of the fourth-place team.

Needless to say, Hibs can’t control which team wins the cup. All they can focus on at this stage - in addition to remaining above Hearts - is continuing with their policy of chasing down the team directly above them, an outlook which has served them well in overtaking Motherwell, St Johnstone and their city rivals since Heckingbottom took the wheel in mid-February. Regardless of their recent form, of course, it is clearly a tall order for Hibs to get themselves into the top four by the time their campaign closes with a home game against Aberdeen on May 19. If any team is equipped to pull off such a feat, however, it is Heckingbottom’s Hibs.

It is worth recalling that, when the Yorkshireman arrived in Edinburgh, Hibs were five points outside the top six, trailing both Motherwell and St Johnstone. Remarkably, Heckingbottom required only two games (victories over Hamilton Accies and Dundee) to haul his team into the top half of the table, and they haven’t looked back since.

After victory over Hearts in their last fixture lifted them above their city rivals and into fifth place, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the next Edinburgh derby - at Easter Road a week on Sunday - could allow Hibs the chance to leapfrog another rival and move into the top four. That scenario, on paper at least, looks unlikely given that they would need to beat both Celtic and Hearts and hope that whoever loses this weekend’s clash between Kilmarnock and Aberdeen at Rugby Park also goes on to suffer defeat in their following match. Killie are away to Celtic and the Dons are away to Rangers.

Even if no headway is made against Celtic this weekend, Hibs can at least look ahead to the last four games of the season knowing that their most formidable match is out of the way and their rivals for a Europa League spot still have to face Neil Lennon’s team. Buoyed by an eight-game unbeaten run in the league, which incorporates three matches against the current top six, Hibs are the most upwardly-mobile of the three sides currently in contention to occupy the places directly beneath Celtic and Rangers, who look certain to finish first and second, respectively.

Aberdeen are currently on something of a downer after losing last weekend’s Scottish Cup semi-final to Celtic, a fortnight after losing away to Hearts. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Dons’ season is about to fizzle out, however. A year ago Derek McInnes’s team lost 2-0 at Tynecastle in their last game before the split and were crushed 3-0 by Motherwell in the Scottish Cup semi-final. Their season looked in ruins at that point but they picked themselves up off the canvas to claim three wins and two draws in their final five league games and secure second-place in the Premiership, at the expense of Rangers and Hibs. That is the type of run Hibs must put together if they are to reel in Aberdeen or Kilmarnock in what remains of the season.

Their cause could be aided by the fact they play both of those teams in their last two games of the campaign. If they can get themselves within three points of either team by the time they are due to face them - which looks a perfectly attainable target - they will then have the chance to leapfrog them with a victory assuming neither side significantly improves their goal difference in the intervening period. For the record, Hibs and Aberdeen both have the same goal difference of plus 15 while Kilmarnock are three better off. If Hibs are to make up the six points on Steve Clarke’s team in the coming weeks, the chances are their marginally superior goal difference would also be wiped out in the process.

As things stand, Aberdeen look the team most catchable for Hibs. Kilmarnock are in better form than the Dons and have the advantage of playing at home to both Aberdeen and Hibs, which could give them a vital edge. Three of Hibs’ five games are at Easter Road, which ought to aid their cause.

Heckingbottom and his players will hope that, however things unfold in the coming weeks, they are in a position whereby there is plenty riding on the last of those fixtures when Aberdeen come to town on the final day.