Stevie Mallan insists resurgent Hibs are far better placed to deal with the demands of a trip to Livingston than they were at the start of the season.
At a time when they were deemed to be undergoing a period of transition under Neil Lennon, the Easter Road side suffered their first domestic defeat of the campaign away to the newly-promoted Lions in early September. That 2-1 loss was seen as a major upset, but Livingston have since gone on to establish themselves as the strongest home side in the Premiership outwith Rangers and Celtic by winning nine of their 15 league matches at the Tony Macaroni Arena.
Their much-maligned plastic pitch coupled with a ferocious competitive spirit under Gary Holt have unsettled most of their visitors this season. However, Mallan feels that Hibs, who are unbeaten in their past five league games under Paul Heckingbottom, are now better equipped to cope with Livingston’s physical style than they were on their last trip to West Lothian seven months ago.
“It’s a really hard away match, especially bearing in mind how the last game through there went for us,” midfielder Mallan said. “I think we maybe took it a bit for granted. The pitch has a big part to play in it and they also work really well as a team. They’re physical and strong and they know exactly what they are doing, and that all worked to a tee for them when they beat us the last time.
“But I think as a team we’ve come on leaps and bounds since then. We’re in form and we’re used to winning. We make sure that if we’re not going to win, then we’re not going to lose. That’s exactly the mentality this team needed and that’s what’s happened since the new manager has come in. We couldn’t be in a better mindset going into this game. All the boys are champing at the bit after having a few weeks off. We’ve been on a good run of form and a few of the boys have been away on international duty so it all stands us in good stead for what is another massive game.”
Hibs have the chance this evening to, temporarily at least, overtake Hearts for the first time this season, with their fifth-place city rivals hosting Aberdeen tomorrow. Mallan, mindful of the fact they are not yet assured of a top-six place, insists his team mustn’t get caught up in trying to chase down specific teams and should instead remain focused on taking care of each match as it comes along. If they can do that, he believes another crack at Europa League could become a possibility.
“When you’re in that mindset of just concentrating on winning the next game and not paying too much attention to what’s going on in the league, then after a few weeks you open your eyes and see you’re within two points of Hearts and just six points off Kilmarnock with the two of them still to play twice. We’ve got ourselves in a good position.
“For weeks we’ve been chasing sixth place, but now we could be chasing fifth or even fourth, depending how things go. It’s definitely not out the equation that we could qualify for Europe. One or two more wins and we could be right in contention. We’ve still got plenty to play for. It all starts again at Livingston. It’s a must-win because we’ve still got teams chasing us for a top-six spot. The next three games are among the most important we’ll have this season because we need to solidify that top-six place.”