Five talking points ahead of Hibs v Hearts

Don Cowie battles for the ball with Dylan McGeouch during the last meeting between the two teams. Picture: SNS Group
Don Cowie battles for the ball with Dylan McGeouch during the last meeting between the two teams. Picture: SNS Group
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Hibs host rivals Hearts tonight, with the Easter Road side unbeaten in the league against the Jambos this season. Patrick McPartlin looks at five talking points ahead of the showdown

Hearts’ selection headache part 1: The defence

Worst case scenario, Hearts could be without four defenders in Christophe Berra, John Souttar, Demetri Mitchell and Jamie Brandon.

The Hearts boss has hinted that Christophe Berra could take a pain-killing injection for an ankle knock in order to play tonight and while his presence in the defence would be a boost for the backline, having the inspirational captain fit for a derby will be an even greater shot in the arm. His defensive partner Souttar may not be so lucky, with the 21-year-old suffering from a hamstring complaint.

Berra will no doubt be tasked with shackling Hibs forward Flo Kamberi, the big Swiss striker performing the Grant Holt role with great aplomb in his first few appearances in green and white.

Mitchell’s absence has shorn Hearts of an attacking threat on the left, and with Souttar expected to miss out, Aaron Hughes is likely to partner Berra in central defence as Levein opts for a 4-2-3-1 formation.

Connor Randall and Michael Smith look to be the obvious choices in the full-back berths. Levein did hand a surprise start to Marcus Godinho against Motherwell but is unlikely to risk the promising youngster in such a big game.

Does Marvin Bartley start?

Since joining Hibs in 2015, Marvin Bartley has become a firm favourite with the Easter Road faithful and thrives in big games like this. The midfield enforcer loves a scrap in the middle of the park and appears made for the gritty derby encounters over the past few years. But with Lennon expected to play a midfield diamond - Dylan McGeouch at the base, John McGinn and Martin Boyle on the left and right and Scott Allan at the tip behind the front two - there appears to be no place for Bartley. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the former Burnley and Leyton Orient man make an appearance at some point during the game, but unless Lennon springs a surprise with his team selection, it’s hard to see any of the likely starting midfielders making way. That being said, Bartley is a useful player to have on the bench - particularly if Hibs are looking to protect a narrow lead in the latter stages of the match.

READ MORE - Hearts boss hopes Hibs are uptight and ready to explode

“Natural order”

It’s hard to believe that, nearly two months on, we’re still bringing up Craig Levein’s post-match comments from the last derby meeting, in the Scottish Cup. His assertion about the restoration of the “natural order” irked Neil Lennon, wound up the Hibs fans and endeared himself a bit more to the Hearts support. Mission accomplished for a man who has admitted to playing mind games that shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

One of the most common cliches in football is managers vowing to use an opponent’s comments as a team-talk and while it’s hard to imagine a fired-up Lennon blu-tacking a poster with “natural order” on it to the wall of the home dressing room at Easter Road, you can bet he’ll use Levein’s comments to get the best out of his players in a game he claims is more about taking a step closer to Aberdeen and Rangers than getting one over on their city rivals.

Hearts’ selection headache part 2: The midfield

As well as having to cobble together a defence, Craig Levein will also have to consider his midfield five.

Steven Naismith is likely to start on the left of an attacking midfield trio (provided Levein does go with a 4-2-3-1) while Joaquim Adao and Prince Buaben will likely occupy the two holding roles.

But with David Milinkovic a doubt with a knee injury, and Harry Cochrane a bit off-colour in recent matches, Levein could go with Don Cowie in the central attacking midfield role and hand Danny Amankwaa a starting spot on the right.

If Milinkovic isn’t fully fit, he’s an option from the bench in the second half, while Cochrane and Anthony McDonald could also play a part at some stage.

While Ross Callachan didn’t cover himself in glory against Motherwell in the Scottish Cup, he has played a central attacking midfield role against Hibs before at Easter Road, and Levein could opt to move Cowie out right to accommodate Callachan, and use Amankwaa or Milinkovic from the bench.

Then again, Levein could throw everyone a curveball by starting McDonald, or Euan Henderson, or Lewis Moore.

READ MORE - Joaquim Adao won’t change competitive streak for Hibs clash

Adao v Allan

There are a handful of new faces on both sides who could feature - Jamie Maclaren, Flo Kamberi and Scott Allan for Hibs, and Joaquim Adao and Danny Amankwaa for Hearts - which could have a bearing on how the match plays out. If Amankwaa starts, he’ll come up against Lewis Stevenson on the left side of the Hibs defence, while Kamberi and Maclaren will face the formidable duo of Christophe Berra and Aaron Hughes.

But the intriguing battle will surely be Allan v Adao. The combative Angolan midfielder, booked in each of his six Hearts appearances so far but who has vowed not to change his playing style until after tonight’s derby, will have a straightforward remit: curb Allan’s influence.

Playmaker Allan has been viewed as the final piece of the Hibs jigsaw; a link between the midfield and strikers, and the man to create chances for the forwards that his fellow midfielders can’t.

One of Adao’s strengths lies in his work off the ball - knowing where to be, when to put in a challenge and snuffing out attacks. He’ll have his work cut out dealing with Allan, but a strong performance from Adao could go a long way to helping Hearts get something from this match or, at the very least, limiting Hibs’ creativity.