Changes afoot? Hibs out to avoid damage in Andorra before taking Motherwell's scalp
This is an important week for Hibs, as they look to continue their journey in the Europa Conference League while preparing for the beginning of the 2021/22 Premiership campaign.
Jack Ross and his players are in Andorra on Thursday evening to play the second leg of their second qualifying round tie against Santa Coloma, defending a 3-0 lead from last week’s first chapter at Easter Road, before the domestic action begins away at Motherwell on Sunday.
Those who witnessed Hibs’ victory over the part-time Pyreneans know it is highly unlikely they will surrender a three-goal cushion when the teams reconvene later this week at the Estadi Nacional in Andorra la Vella. Santa Coloma had some reasonably technical operators in their ranks, but they could not deal with the pace of Hibs and the tempo Ross’ men play at. Furthermore, the Andorrans defence wilted under any tangible pressure, and it’s hard to envisage Hibs not scoring over there.
What Hibs will need to be wary of is getting involved in the theatrics and skullduggery that Santa Coloma turned to at Easter Road. Three players saw red – including Hibs’ Joe Newell – and six players were booked by Icelandic referee Vilhjalmur Thorarinsson, who was so far out of his depth. Hibs will want a much more serene experience.
Ross will have to decide what sort of team he will put out in Andorra. He will have Sunday’s trip to Fir Park in the back of his mind, given the importance of starting the league campaign with a bang. One of the reasons Hibs claimed third place last season was because they came out of the traps so fast, harvesting enough points to see them through a mini-drought later in the term.
Newell will sit it out, suspended due to the harshest of dismissals, and while Hibs surely had grounds for a successful appeal, they have opted against it. The official reasons are the logistics and the danger of the whole process spilling into the next round, but it’s also a clue that the club feel they can get the job done without their midfielder.
Not caught in the middle
That’s not a slight on Newell, who is now a regular in Hibs’ team. Ross has built a squad capable of dealing with such absences. Kyle Magennis, a six-figure arrival from St Mirren last season, has not sparkled in the way he would hope due to injury, illness and form players ahead of him, but he was Hibs’ best player for much of the Santa Coloma match and he ought to be given more game-time in Andorra.
The big question for Ross is whether he makes more changes. Martin Boyle scored twice and terrorised the Santa Coloma backline, but the danger for Hibs is that he (a) picks up another yellow card after being cautioned in the first leg or (b) picks up an injury. He was on the receiving end of some naughty tackles and the last thing Ross wants is a knock for his most dangerous forward. The same will apply to Kevin Nisbet, who also scored and while in need of minutes, his fellow striker Christian Doidge wants them more after spending much of pre-season floored by a bout of Covid-19. Given his physicality, the Welshman is likely to start in Andorra.
Scott Allan was the collateral damage from Newell’s red card, substituted after just 31 minutes as Ross looked to shore up his team with ten men, and given the amount of time he spent on the sidelines last term and the excitement surrounding his return, he should be stripped for action
Left-back Josh Doig was an unused substitute and while speculation continues about interest from Arsenal and Watford, the teenager is such a grounded individual and needs to be given more minutes. Lewis Stevenson could make way for Doig, although the former is probably a safer bet when trying to defend a lead.
Midfielder Jake Doyle-Hayes and forward Jamie Murphy will hope to be back from injury and board the plane and young Stevie Bradley, who impressed in pre-season matches against Raith Rovers and Arsenal, could also get minutes.
Blend of youth and experience
Ross will want to find the balance between resting his best players while fielding a team savvy enough to deal with Santa Coloma’s antics. Then there is the heat to deal with – it is forecast to be 27C when the match kicks off at 5.30pm GMT – so the smart money would be an experienced enough starting XI, with fresh young legs later in the match. This could be an occasion for veteran centre-half Darren McGregor, a gnarled warrior who you would definitely want in your camp if things start to get tasty.
Sunday’s cinch Premiership opener against Motherwell, though, won’t be far from Hibs’ minds. Their first four league fixtures are against the Steelmen, Ross County, Dundee and Livingston, and they will be desperate to hit the ground running. Early suggestions are that Aberdeen have improved under Stephen Glass, while the return of Hearts to the division complicates matter for Hibs. Edinburgh derbies often impact on the games before and after it, so this mini-run of fixtures is attractive before the first Capital clash on September 12.
Motherwell stuttered through their Premier Sports Cup campaign, and a 2-0 defeat by Airdrieonians has raised questions about Graham Alexander’s team. It appears a good opportunity to start the domestic campaign with a flourish.
So another big week awaits Hibs – but this is becoming the norm for Ross and his players. Avoiding any damage in Andorra and three points in Lanarkshire would be a job well done.