Will return of key Hibs defender crack clean sheet code for Monty?

Back from AFCON without playing a minute, Rocky is ready to roll
Bushiri hasn't played since December 27.Bushiri hasn't played since December 27.
Bushiri hasn't played since December 27.

It may only be an intermittent crisis of the sort that comes and goes, its appearance and impact dependent on the whims of form, mood and fortune that affect every team. But nobody could claim that this Hibs defence – banged up, patched up, broken down and put together again more than once in a season of change – is performing anywhere near the levels required at a club with ambitions beyond mid-table mediocrity.

Will the return of Rocky Bushiri, a player without a minute of competitive football since December 27, provide Nick Montgomery’s men with a quick fix to all that ails them? It couldn’t hurt. Which says a lot.

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The absence of January loan signing Owen Bevan, the persistently injured Wales Under-21 international, and the rough introduction to Scottish football endured by fellow mid-season arrival Nectar Triantis leave Montgomery with limited options. The return to health of club captain Paul Hanlon is one, Bushiri the other.

“Before the weekend, I’d only seen Rocky once in two months, one training session last week!’ said Montgomery, who put Bushiri – just back from AFCON duty with the Democratic Republic of Congo - on the bench for the wacky 2-2 draw with Aberdeen at Pittodrie. “So we’ll have had a full week, this week, to get him back into training.

“The fact is he didn’t play one minute of competitive football for two months. It’s really difficult to accept that – you have your first-choice centre-back taken away for two months, and he doesn’t play one minute of football. But we can’t control that.

“Unfortunately, it left us in a situation where we only really had Will Fish as a centre-back. Now we’ve got players back fit. Paul Hanlon was sick for six weeks, he’s back. But until we brought Nectar Triantis in, Will Fish was our one central defender.

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“In that department, we’ve lacked consistence since probably before Christmas, before the international break. We’ve now had a full week of training to work on stuff together.”

With direct, dangerous and damned effective Dundee visiting Easter Road on Saturday, Hibs will know exactly what to expect. You can sense them bracing themselves for an aerial onslaught. A particular problem for this team.

Only Livingston and Ross County, the two sides at the foot of the table, have conceded more league goals than Hibs season. They haven’t kept a clean sheet in the Scottish Premiership since December 9, coincidentally the last time they won a league game. And the repeat offences on their rap sheet – losing goals to set pieces, either from the first delivery or the second phase after a clearance – establish a pattern of softness that can’t be dismissed as some statistical quirk.

When the ball goes into the box, they panic. They flap and flounder. In a league where crosses from all areas and angles play such a significant part in chance creation, that’s a dangerous flaw.

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Aware that corners and free-kicks have been an Achilles’ heel since long before he replaced predecessor Lee Johnson back in September, Montgomery provides an obvious answer when asked what he and his coaching staff are doing to fix an issue exposed – again – by Aberdeen’s opener at Pittodrie.

“Just keep working on it,” he said. “We worked on it all last week, defending off set pieces. And it had been very good for the last couple of games.

“But it’s about switching off when we’ve not got control of the ball. The one or two times we do switch off, it seems like we’ve been punished by conceding goals.

“We identify it and work on it. Then it’s just a case of continuing to improve, working on it regularly, because set pieces are a big part of the game in this league.

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“We’ve done really well in defending them in patches this season. But in patches we’ve let ourselves down, as well. So we’ll keep working on it, continue to improve on it.

“Look, we’ve had a really stretched squad all season. Over the last couple of weeks we’ve had a lot of change – and now it’s just really about finding a bit of consistency.

“Against Celtic we had one shot on target against. Against Inverness, there were two shots on target against us. But then at the weekend there were a lot of mistakes by both teams, really, on a difficult pitch. That’s the one thing we need to find quickly, consistency. Because it is important.”

Chris Cadden played in Tuesday’s Reserve League win over Ayr United, continuing his return from long-term injury by getting more minutes in his legs, Montgomery saying: “It’s important that we keep guiding Cadds forward, don’t push him because he’s been out for a long time. So he got some minutes against Inverness, then played in another bounce game. We have to manage him on a week-by-week basis, make sure he’s still getting enough football and experiences to get him sharp.”

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