Plenty high-intensity match practice or 18 days’ rest? Dumfries or La Manga? Scottish May weather or Spanish sunshine?
Ever since the regulation Championship season came to an end almost three weeks ago, much of the talk about the Premiership play-off semi-final had centred around who would be best prepared. Rangers, after being pipped to second place by Hibs, had to spend the past couple of weekends embroiled in a potentially energy-sapping two-legged encounter against Queen of the South. Hibs, meanwhile, had earned themselves an unexpected sunshine break in south-west Spain to recharge their batteries ahead of their biggest games of the season. Last night’s scoreline – 2-0 in favour of Rangers – may suggest a gruelling few weeks in Scotland is favourable to a lengthy period of recuperation, although the final outcome was largely down to Rangers being more ruthless than their guests when opportunity knocked.
Certainly in the early part of the game, Hibs looked fresh and sprightly enough in their pristine, white away shirts. Their trademark tidy build-up play was evident for long periods of the first half, with Scott Allan, the recently-crowned Championship player of the year, looking up for the occasion and constantly trying to unlock a well-drilled Rangers defence.
Dominique Malonga, in his typical languid fashion, looked the most threatening attacker on the field in the first half and it was he who created Hibs’ only clear chance of the opening 45 minutes, only for Jason Cummings, the league’s top scorer, to completely miscue in front of goal. Mark Oxley was also sharp enough when called upon, even if the goalkeeper did have to spend most of the first half contending with paper snowballs being thrown at him by the scallywags in the Broomloan Lower. The Yorkshireman is big enough to deal with a few paper missiles on his back, but he was certainly entitled to feel irked that very little action was taken to stop these obvious distraction tactics by a section of a home support that outnumbered their visiting counterparts by 40 to 1. Hibs were handed a paltry allocation of just 950 briefs even though, according to the official attendance more than 10,000 seats remained vacant.
It was only when Allan was pelted by more paper snow while taking a corner early in the second half that a handful of stewards arrived on the scene. By this point, Hibs had fallen behind. For all that the Easter Road side had been marginally the better team before the break, their hosts certainly didn’t look beleaguered from their recent exploits. Whenever they did seize possession from their slick visitors, Rangers attacked with purpose and energy, with the two ex-Easter Road players in their ranks, Dean Shiels and Kenny Miller, particularly lively.
Despite the lack of opportunities for either side, the fare was captivating enough, with two evenly-matched teams both trying to play football and waiting patiently for their opportunity to make a breakthrough. Just as a half-time stalemate looked on the cards, Rangers got it when Nicky Clark stroked home a minute before the break.
With that, Hibs’ hope of turning the home support against their own team went out of the window. The Ibrox crowd, notably edgy whenever the Edinburgh side attacked in the first half, were able to relax a little and duly roared their side up the tunnel at the interval. And they were in full voice for much of the second half after Miller’s clinically-executed second goal gave them some welcome breathing space.
Rangers were able to coast through the last quarter of the game as Hibs’ frustrations grew, and even at the end, there were no wild celebrations from a group of players who know they still have work to do to complete the job at a ground where they have already lost 4-0 this season.
Hibs have a second-leg mountain to climb against a side who don’t give the impression of having peaked just yet in this captivating play-off series.