Hibs manager Neil Lennon has admitted to finding himself in a surreal situation, facing one of the Edinburgh club’s biggest games of the season but stripped of two key players because of international commitments.
Hibs meet Falkirk at home tomorrow, top of the Championship and seven points ahead of their opponents who, along with Morton, have emerged as their closest rivals for the title and the one automatic promotion place it carries.
But Lennon will be without both Scotland midfielder John McGinn – part of Gordon Strachan’s squad for Sunday night’s World Cup qualifying match against Slovenia – while goalkeeper Ofir Marciano is in Spain tonight as Israel hope to keep their interest in clinching a place in next year’s finals in Russia alive.
Hibs would have been granted dispensation had three players been called away on international duty but, with only two missing, they are obliged to go ahead with a fixture which could prove pivotal to their season’s over-riding target of ending three seasons in the second flight of Scottish football.
Although McGinn played only 14 minutes of Wednesday night’s friendly against Canada, Strachan afterwards indicated he’d be retaining the 22-year-old for Sunday’s Group F match at Hampden, Lennon acknowledging that while it was “fantastic” for the player “it’s not great for me”.
Lennon was at Easter Road to see McGinn play a cameo role in the 1-1 draw with Canada, the visitors’ goal having come from Falkirk’s Fraser Aird, the winger serving notice that he’ll be one to be watched tomorrow as the Hibs manager admitted.
“Fraser Aird was excellent,” said Lennon. “He was certainly Canada’s best player. He was a threat the whole night and I was very impressed. He scored a good goal and made some great runs. It definitely gave me some food for thought. There will be a confidence and familiarity for him going into the game tomorrow although I’m not sure he’s been playing that well for Falkirk.”
Having taken note of the potential danger of Aird, Lennon was more concerned with what he described as the hindrance of losing both McGinn and Marciano for such a crucial game. He said: “I spoke with John after the game on Wednesday night and he seemed in a good place. He has another cap won in front of his home crowd, so that’s pretty special.
“He will obviously be involved in some capacity in the game on Sunday which is fantastic for him. It’s not great for me, but he’s playing for his country.”
Hibs supporters had been holding out hope that with the likes of Celtic’s Scott Brown, Stuart Armstrong and James Forrest available to face Slovenia after being rested in midweek, Strachan may release McGinn to play for his club in recognition of the importance of their league game the previous day.
But Lennon admitted he’s not counting on such a move, saying: “I’ve not spoken to Gordon about it. He is under Gordon’s jurisdiction with Scotland, he’s their player and if Gordon wasn’t going to use him then I’m sure I would know by now.
“It’s a bit of a surreal situation, really, that we have to go ahead with the game – a really important game – with two of our most important players going away with their country.
“I’m not sure if you would call it punishment, but it is definitely a hindrance.”
Ironically for Hibs, it has been Marciano’s performances for the club which have earned him a recall to the Israeli squad, the 26-year-old, who had previously made ten appearances for his country, having previously fallen out of favour under new coach Elisha Levy.
Lennon said: “Ofir has had a very good season and, once he got over his injuries, he’s been very consistent. It just shows what a good season we are having that it has got Ofir back into the Israel manager’s thinking while John has been involved with Scotland for the last 18 months.”
Ross Laidlaw will deputise for Marciano, the former Raith Rovers goalkeeper having taken over from his team-mate in each of Hibs’ three Championship matches with Falkirk earlier in the season and emerging unbeaten with two wins and a draw to his name.
The return of Fraser Fyvie from suspension will also help compensate for the loss of McGinn with another midfielder Dylan McGeouch also back in the frame for tomorrow while both McGinn and Marciano will have rejoined Lennon’s squad for the equally crucial game with Morton on Wednesday, two matches which the Hibs manager admitted could go a long way to determining the destination of the title.
He will, however, be looking for his players to ditch the “Jekyll and Hyde” performances of late in which they have dropped more than a few precious points although, as Falkirk boss Peter Houston admitted, those chasing Hibs have failed to take advantage of those slip-ups.
Lennon said: “Against Dumbarton, we were poor first half, great second half. We need to bring those two halves together and if we do, then we’ll take some stopping. Falkirk will take care of itself. There’s a bit of historical rivalry, if you want to call it that. If we win we possibly make it impossible for them to win the league and then we have Morton at home, another big game.
“In the games we have dropped points we have generally been the dominant team. Only in a couple have we not been at the level we can play. In the others we have dominated possession, chances, attempts on goal, all those stats have shown we’ve been the stronger team. That’s why you get frustrated, because we’ve played well and not won.
“I understand where Peter is coming from, but I am probably more frustrated than anyone.
“You set standards, maybe a wee bit too high for them at the end of the day. But we’ve only lost one game since the beginning of December, so we’ve been pretty consistent. There’s been a frustration but overall I have been pretty pleased with the level of performance, the attitude and commitment of the players.”
Having previously stated he doesn’t much care how Hibs win matches so long as they take the three points from each, Lennon admitted he’s also not too fussy as to how the title is won. He said: “If we win the league by a point or on goal difference it doesn’t really matter to me. Obviously I would like it to be a lot more comfortable, but we have put ourselves in a very good position.”