Dominique Malonga reckons there is not much between Hibs and tomorrow’s opponents Hearts.
He has come within a whisker of beating them this season, has personally breached their defences and has been a key part in Hibs’ resurgent form since the last derby in October. However, there is one subtle difference for the Congolese striker. Mentality. Both teams now possess the right one, but Hearts found it quicker.
Hearts go into Saturday’s derby clash still unbeaten in the Championship. They are 15 points clear of second-placed Rangers and 19 points ahead of Hibs in third spot. Many have already handed the Jambos the title. On form, who could really argue? They have swept all before them in the league this season and have a 100 per cent record at home, already claiming the scalp of Hibs with a 2-1 Tynecastle triumph in August.
The Hibees’ trip across the city will be Hearts’ sternest league test to date, though. Of that there is no doubt.
Malonga, Hibs’ top scorer with 11 goals this season, is adamant he and his team-mates now have the mentality to take down their Edinburgh rivals. They have only lost one match in the past 15, on a fine run that was topped off by last weekend’s 4-0 savaging of Rangers, and Malonga is convinced Alan Stubbs’ side have clicked. They’ve got what Hearts have, just a few months too late.
“I’m surprised how far behind we are with Hearts, because we have ability and we have a great team, but Hearts have the thing, they are consistent,” said Malonga in an exclusive interview with the Evening News. “At home they win every game and away they are strong. Hearts is a really good team and have been consistently, but now I think we have that. Hearts have the mentality we have now, but they found it earlier.
“The gap is big and I think early in the season we were struggling at home. We never won two games in a row until Raith Rovers. It’s important to win back-to-back matches and be consistent and that’s what Hearts have done.”
Malonga has plenty of admiration for Hearts, but he’s not afraid of them. Far from it. Why should he be? He scored the opening goal in 1-1 draw at Easter Road two months ago and caused the Jambos’ rearguard all manner of problems with his clever link-up play and movement. Since then he has established himself as one of the league’s top strikers in a team that’s on form, while also earning his first international cap with Congo as they qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations, which takes place later this month. He is the happiest he has been in his career, but don’t let the soft smiles throw you. He is ready to be ruthless and win the derby for Hibs.
What spurs him on more than anything is that this will be his last game for Hibs in potentially six weeks. He flies out to Africa on Sunday to join the rest of his Congo team-mates as they attempt to strike gold in Equatorial Guinea.
Congo have a reasonable shout of making the latter stages of the tournament as they are in a group with the hosts, Burkina Faso and Gabon. The tournament ends on February 7 and there’s a good chance Malonga will be away for most of it.
“It’s my last game before I go to Equatorial Guinea,” said Malonga, “but it’s a special game, being a derby and my first time in the Hearts stadium. I think it is going to be fun.
“I have to give my all. I just want to see the fans enjoying themselves, because the last time we played against Hearts at Easter Road we were really, really, really unlucky. I think we deserved to win the game and for that reason I want to make the fans happy.”
Malonga scored the opening goal in that match and it looked like it was going to be the winner until Hearts defender Alim Ozturk morphed into Cristiano Ronaldo for a brief moment and unleashed a 40-yard, stoppage-time stonker to rescue a point for the visitors. “The game at Easter Road was special because it was my first derby,” said Malonga. “We played a good game and we had it in our hands. And then the defender, he shoots a brilliant, brilliant goal. What can you do? We draw. It was unlucky, but it’s happened and now Saturday is a different game. We are a different team, a better team. We have better confidence.”
Evidence of Hibs being a better all-round team comes in the shape of their past two matches. They were won in very different circumstances, but Malonga reckons they both show how far Hibs have come. Two weeks ago they fought back from behind to win 3-1 away at Raith and then last weekend they bludgeoned Rangers 4-0 at home in one of the best Hibs performances of recent times.
“We know that we can beat good teams,” said Malonga. “We are not afraid of anyone. But it’s important to be focused. We have to take it one game at a time. Everyone is different. For example, against Raith, we started very well and I should have scored. I missed a good chance and Raith score, and I’m thinking, ‘oh no, what have I done, now we have to score’. But we came back and that was a really big boost for our confidence.
“Then on Saturday, we score two early goals, which was important because I thought Rangers started well. They were really good, but David Gray scores a great goal and it changes. Rangers’ heads go down and it all turns round. So there you go, every game is different.
Those wins have reinforced Malonga’s belief in his team, but also the fact that Hibs must remain focused. “This league is really hard and that’s why we have to focus,” he said. “At the moment our confidence is up, but it’s also easy for the confidence to go down if you don’t go into each match focused. If you don’t work hard, we’ll lose.”
Come next week, Malonga will be in a totally different environment. He is so driven to beat Hearts that he refuses to talk much about his African adventure, but does admit to pride in taking the Hibs name across the globe, especially as the club has given him so much.
“I’m proud to be representing Hibs in Africa, because they gave me the opportunity to play with this great team,” he said. “I have to give my all every day because of what they have given me. Before, I had a club in Italy, Cesena, but I wanted to be a free agent so I cut my contract short. And you know, I think I made the right decision.”
The former Monaco, Torino, Cesena and Murcia striker feels loved at Hibs. He is popular with the fans and is a big hit with his team-mates. He has struck up a potent partnership with creative midfielder Scott Allan and Malonga credits the young Scot for how well he has done since arriving in September, even if he has trouble understanding what the Glaswegian is saying.
“Scotty Allan is a really good player – he’s my guy, you know!” said Malonga, laughing. “I don’t understand when he speaks because he talks really, really quickly but when we play together, we understand each other. He watches me, he looks for me and that means I really like to play with Scotty. I think he has to be focused and on his game, but when he does that he’s a good player, a very good player.
“In the dressing-room, I can just about get what he’s saying, but oh, he speaks really quick. Really, really quick. Jason (Cummings) is the same. He talks too fast, but it’s fun, it’s good and I like being with them.”
Malonga is settled in the Capital and enjoys everything the city has to offer bar the weather. “I really like Edinburgh,” he explained. “I live in the old town, near to the castle and the museum with my wife and my son. The only problem is that it’s cold! But you have great fans here. I like playing at home, but I also really like playing away because the fans come in numbers. That makes me proud to be part of the club.”
There’s one thing apart from the weather that would make Malonga’s life better though. “I just want to go up to the Premiership, that’s my main goal,” he added. “It might have to be the play-off. It’ll be tough, but we might have to do that, but I’m happy here, really happy. I enjoy every day and I hope we go to the Premiership. How cool would that be?”