Hibs have a chance this Saturday to lay an early glove on Aberdeen and signal their intent for the season.
The Dons secured their fourth consecutive second-place finish in the Scottish Premiership last term, finishing three points above Rangers and six ahead of Hibs in what developed into an epic three-way battle for the runners-up spot in the closing months of the campaign.
Despite the points disparity in the final reckoning, the widely-held consensus by the end of the Edinburgh side’s first campaign back in the top flight was that they had progressed so impressively under Neil Lennon, particularly from January onwards, that they could be considered to be operating on the same level as Derek McInnes’s more established team.
For all their impressive exploits throughout last season, however, Hibs were always travelling in Aberdeen’s slipstream from the moment they lost at home to Hamilton Accies in their third match of the campaign, a match which set in motion a run of only one win from seven autumn matches. Aberdeen, by contrast, motored clear with Celtic at the top of the league after taking 23 points from their opening nine undefeated matches, a run which included a hardfought 1-0 victory at Easter Road in October.
It was only during a magnificent run of post-January form that Hibs truly showed the consistency required to challenge for second place, before running out of momentum in the closing three matches at a time when it looked within their grasp. As these two evenly-matched rivals prepare to renew hostilities in Leith this weekend, they are locked together on four points apiece from their opening two matches. The significance of this meeting will not be lost on either Lennon or McInnes as these two ambitious and highly-regarded managers attempt to infuse their teams with fresh impetus at the end of testing summers.
Despite following up their valiant efforts in Europa League qualifying with reasonably strong starts to their league campaign and progress to the Betfred Cup quarter-finals, it is hard to escape the notion that both Hibs and Aberdeen are diminished from the teams that sandwiched Rangers in the league table last season. While the Ibrox side have made clear improvements across the board this summer under Steven Gerrard and are red-hot favourites with bookmakers to finish second, Hibs and Aberdeen still look like they are looking to regain their respective mojos after losing key men from recent seasons.
The Easter Road side are in the process of rebuilding a midfield decimated by the departures of John McGinn, Scott Allan and Dylan McGeouch, a scenario which will have come as something of a relief to McInnes who saw his side outplayed by Hibs’ three musketeers at Easter Road in February as the Edinburgh side produced arguably their best performance of last season to beat Aberdeen 2-0.
By the same token, however, the Dons have lost Ryan Christie, Anthony O’Connor, Adam Rooney and Kenny McLean from the side that routed Hibs 4-1 at Pittodrie in December in what was probably their best performance of the last campaign. The departure of playmaker McLean is likely to be particularly tricky for McInnes to overcome in the short term, while the manager will be hopeful that James Wilson, the on-loan Manchester United striker, can adequately fill the centre-forward position in which the likes of Jayden Stockley, Stevie May and Sam Cosgrove have toiled to make a telling impact.
In addition to those who have departed over the summer, both teams are currently missing key centre-backs through injury, with Hibs’ Darren McGregor and Aberdeen’s Scott McKenna – the subject of a £3.5 million bid from Celtic this week – remaining on the sidelines this weekend.
A sense of mild transition lingers around both clubs, with supporters in Leith and the Granite City unsure of where in the league table they should be aiming their sights. There will be plenty within the fanbase of both clubs who will still view second place behind Celtic as perfectly attainable. However, given the general acceptance that both Hibs and Aberdeen have lost some of their main men from last season while Rangers – with a significant monetary advantage – look to have bought well and addressed their soft centre, it would take a monumental effort for either Lennon or McInnes to split the two Glasgow clubs this season. As things stand, Hibs and Aberdeen look set for a three-way battle with a much-improved Hearts to finish third.
A win for either team at Easter Road this weekend, however, would go some way to re-establishing their respective credentials as top-two contenders. For all the early-summer fret about key men departing and not being replaced until after the season started, both teams can be pretty happy with their starts to the campaign, both domestically and in Europe. Lennon and McInnes will feel there is plenty more to come once their new players settle in and their teams fully adapt to life without this summer’s dearly departed, but this Saturday’s match will give a strong indication of which side is currently better equipped for the campaign ahead. With Florian Kamberi, Jamie Maclaren and Martin Boyle in the mix, Hibs are entitled to feel they have enough firepower to cause a McKenna-less Aberdeen defence plenty problems, but, equally, the likes of Niall McGinn and Gary Mackay-Steven will fancy their chances of getting in behind a Hibs back-line which has been shipping goals at an uncharacteristically high rate both at the end of last season and the beginning of this one.
The fact the outcome of this weekend’s match looks so hard to predict is an indicator of how impressively Hibs have progressed in recent years and also of how well they seem to have gone about replenishing their squad following the absence of a key midfield trio widely viewed as irreplaceable, in the short term at least. If they can emerge from Saturday’s game with seven points from nine having stolen an early-season march on a rival who finished marginally ahead of them last season, optimism levels in Leith, dented slightly by the aforementioned departures, will sky-rocket once more.