Since Rangers eked out a 1-0 victory at home to Hibs on August 23, they have won ten of their 11 matches in all competitions and lost the other, to Premiership side St Johnstone in the League Cup. In the same period, Hibs have won nine and drawn one of their ten matches.
In short, both sides have been in pretty relentless form over the last two months. The problem for Hibs, of course, is that the competitive season began a few weeks before they actually found their stride. By the time they started winning consistently, they had crashed out of the Petrofac Training Cup with a 6-2 defeat at home to Rangers and lost two of their opening three league games. It seems no coincidence that this early-season botchery came in a period when the club was clearly rocked by the uncertainty surrounding last season’s talisman, Scott Allan, who eventually left for Celtic, and the likes of John McGinn, Liam Henderson, Dylan McGeouch and James Keatings were either not fully fit and firing or hadn’t even arrived at the club.
Now that things appear to have settled down, the real Hibs, with their increased strength in depth and renewed defensive resolve, look to be standing up. Their current run is the best ten-game sequence the club has enjoyed since Alex McLeish’s team also won nine and drew one in the old First Division 17 years ago. In any other second-tier season, it would be reasonable to suggest that Alan Stubbs’ team had the steely look of champions in waiting. The problem, just like last season, however, is that they find themselves in combat with a team who managed to find their relentless form from week one, with Rangers having won all 11 of their league games so far. Last season, Hearts won nine of their first ten matches and were a whopping 14 points ahead of Hibs going into the second Edinburgh derby of the season at Easter Road a year ago this week. Even if Alim Ozturk hadn’t equalised in stoppage time, Hibs would still have been 11 behind their city rivals.
This season’s title hopes, although slender enough to be classed as a 16/1 chance with bookmakers, look notably more salvageable. Come late Sunday afternoon, they could be within five points of Rangers with 24 matches remaining and 72 points to play for. For a team who were ten points behind the Ibrox side last December and still pipped them to second place, and considering they were 11 points behind just ten days ago, such a deficit wouldn’t faze Stubbs’ team in the slightest. While Mark Warburton’s Rangers are a far better team than the one that crumbled so badly under Ally McCoist and then Kenny McDowall in the mid-section of last term, Hibs are also much stronger in all areas than they were last season and look equipped to remain in the winning groove, by and large, for the remainder of the campaign.
Rangers are sure to slip up at some point, and recent performances suggest they are not far away from losing their 100 per cent record. If they were to lose to Hibs and suffer even a mini-wobble after that, the whole dynamic of the battle for the Championship will have altered in a matter of weeks. Most of the Rangers players – St Johnstone defeat aside – have only known good times at Ibrox and haven’t yet had to deal with any sustained pressure or criticism from the masses. A test of character awaits if they lose at Easter Road.
If they win on Sunday, however, an 11-point lead would mean that any points subsequently dropped would be unlikely to damage their title hopes significantly and any backlash would be minimal. These are hypothetical scenarios at present, but the fact they are even on the horizon is testament to how well Hibs have recovered from that defeat at Ibrox. Although the visitors were widely deemed to have been the better team that day, most expected Warburton’s team to subsequently enjoy a procession to the title. Stubbs’ side have refused to succumb meekly, though.
It now looks as if the two teams are far more evenly-balanced than many perceived back in July and August, and that Hibs, who set in motion Aberdeen’s spiral of decline last month, have the necessary attributes to at least keep things interesting into the new year. To do that, though, they must ensure the gap does not increase again. Defeat on Sunday would surely knock the stuffing out of the Edinburgh side’s challenge, but, by the same token, a home victory would have the significant double effect of denting Rangers’ eight-point advantage and their aura of invincibility. A draw would keep Hibs in contention – just – but would have to be viewed as a missed opportunity to crank up the pressure on their rivals at a time when rustiness appears to have entered their play.
Stubbs would never entertain talk of a season-defining match in autumn, but it is hard to escape the feeling that Sunday’s showdown will decide whether or not his burgeoning team are still playing for the title.