Other than feeling a touch cold, Dominique Malonga is delighted to be back in Edinburgh and desperate to pull on a Hibs shirt again after sweltering in the heat of Central Africa.
The striker didn’t enjoy as much game time as he might have hoped during Congo’s Africa Cup of Nations campaign as he made just two substitute appearances amounting to only 28 minutes. However, he insisted he had thoroughly enjoyed the experience, while revealing he didn’t let the near-4000 miles between Equatorial Guinea and the Capital prevent him keeping a close eye on his Easter Road team-mates.
As he prepared for a return to Championship action in tonight’s crunch clash with Rangers at Ibrox, the 26-year-old, speaking exclusively to the Evening News, admitted he’s anxious to get back among the goals, having seen teenager Jason Cummings overtake him as Hibs’ top scorer during his absence.
Not only that, Malonga has returned to find head coach Alan Stubbs has toughened the competition for places up-front by bringing in Martin Boyle and Franck Dja Djedje during January, while Farid El Alagui has resumed training following months out with a ruptured achilles tendon. In addition, goalkeeper Tomas Cerny, defender Keith Watson and midfielder Fraser Fyvie all arrived while he was away.
However, Malonga believes everyone will relish having to battle for their place in the team as Hibs push to secure a play-off spot, with the hope in the Easter Road camp being that will be achieved by finishing second.
Admitting that the title appeared “impossible”, with Capital rivals Hearts 20 points ahead, he said: “We have a very good squad, there’s real competition for places in every position. We now have 13 games to play before the play-offs and the goal for everyone here is promotion. We have to be focused, work hard every week to win games, which we have to do if we are to get into the play-offs.”
Stubbs’ side appear to be hitting form at the right time, with just one defeat over 90 minutes in their last 21 games, a record they’ll seek to extend tonight by becoming the first Hibs side in ten years to beat Rangers in three successive matches. Victory in Govan would take the Edinburgh side above their hosts in the league.
Malonga said: “Rangers are a good team, but I think the last game against them was probably the best we have played at home. It’s going to be a big fight for second place and we have to be prepared to play with great intensity in every game.”
To that end, Malonga was delighted to see Stubbs’ players keep the heat on Rangers as he kept tabs on events at Easter Road from afar via his laptop and regular chats with a member of staff at East Mains. The Paris-born player said: “He kept me in touch with all our games and I saw them and the goals on my laptop, so I was very happy to see my team were winning.
“Before I left I told Jason he was capable of keeping the team winning so it was great to see him score so many times because I think he has the ability to be very good for us.
“Now I am back I find we have two more strikers in Martin and Franck. I actually know a bit about Franck because one of my international team-mates with Congo, Francis N’Ganga, who plays with Charleroi in Belgium, was a team-mate of his with Grenoble in France and he’s told me what a good striker he is. So we will all be fighting for our place each week but I’m looking forward to pulling on a Hibs shirt again – I’m back in business.”
During his time in Equatorial Guinea, Malonga stepped off the bench to lay on Congo’s equaliser against the host nation in their opening game and also came on as his country crashed out of the competition to the Democratic Republic of Congo in the quarter-finals.
After not featuring as much as he would have liked at AFCON, Malonga is desperate to play his part tonight. He said: “I’d have preferred to play more, it was horrible to sit on the bench. I found it frustrating and a big disappointment. In the first game when I came on I did my job and I thought I deserved more time on the pitch.
“I spoke to the coach [Frenchman Claude Le Roy] about it and although he said I had good talent he told me he made his choice for the team.
“That’s obviously his right, but I think the fact I had come late to the squad – winning my first cap in our last qualifying match – meant he went with players who had played more for the country. “It was hard to stay on the bench, but I remained focused and concentrated on working hard in training every day.”
With temperatures touching 32C and humidity high, Malonga and his team-mates had to be wary about what they drank. He said: “You had to be careful with everything, water and food. The water quality was very poor, which made it difficult because you needed to drink a lot because of the heat and humidity. Some of us, myself included, had stomach upsets. But when you go there people say ‘It’s Africa’, so you just have to live with it.
“I thought Equatorial Guinea was a wonderful country, very interesting and as a whole it was a great experience for me. We played well and should have at least made the semi-finals. We were 2-0 up against Democratic Rebuplic of Congo – it was like a big derby match because we are neighbouring countries – and I think everyone saw the semi-finals looming and we lost 4-2 which, obviously, was very disappointing.”
Malonga returned to Edinburgh in time to watch Stubbs’ side in Scottish Cup action against Arbroath, but was consigned to the stand by suspension after being sent off in the dying minutes of the win over Alloa Athletic in the previous round.
He said: “I was desperate to play with my team-mates again but I knew I couldn’t. It was a bit cold sitting there but even so, it was wonderful to see the fans again and to watch the team win. Now I just want to help my team again.”
Having missed out on one semi-final with Congo, Malonga now has the chance of playing in another, with the quarter-final draw for the Scottish Cup having pitched Hibs against either Lowland League outfit Spartans or League Two side Berwick Rangers. Malonga, though, insists Stubbs’ players will be taking nothing for granted when that match is played at the beginning of next month. He said: “It looks a good draw for us but we still have to play the game and make sure we win it.”