Almost five months on, Hibs must return to the scene of this season’s low-point for their most significant match of the campaign yet.
When Neil Lennon’s team left Pittodrie following a 4-1 defeat at the hands of Aberdeen on December 16, they languished nine points adrift of the second-placed Dons and six behind Rangers. At that point, the result was viewed by many as a sign that Hibs, freshly promoted from the Championship amid a wave of euphoria, weren’t quite equipped to challenge for a top-three position. The intervening period has proved otherwise.
Aided by some shrewd mid-season transfer business, they return to the Granite City having regained ground on both Aberdeen and Rangers. A win on Saturday will take them above the Dons on goal difference and ensure that, at the very least, they remain level on points with the Ibrox side, who host Kilmarnock this weekend.
Hibs have been the form team in the battle for second place, particularly since late January, as evidenced by an 11-game unbeaten run which has incorporated victories over all other members of the Premiership’s top six. With the addition of Florian Kamberi and Jamie Maclaren in attack, allied to the creative spark of Scott Allan in midfield, Hibs head back to Pittodrie in notably better fettle than when they visited just before Christmas. In addition, they will travel north having had a full week to prepare instead of, as was the case last time, having locked horns with both Celtic and Rangers in the previous six days.
“The last performance at Pittodrie was Hibs’ poorest of the season,” pundit and former Hibs player Craig Paterson told the Evening News. “Having played quite well against Aberdeen and lost at Easter Road in October, they just never got going at all when they went up there in December and were well beaten. They’ll want to exorcise the memory of that and play more like they did in the last game at Easter Road (when they won 2-0 in February).
“They’ve proved they can beat Aberdeen, now they need to prove they can beat them on Aberdeen’s pitch. But without a doubt, they are better equipped to go to Aberdeen than they were back in December.”
The most obvious reason for this is the Kamberi-Maclaren partnership in attack. On the previous trip to the north east, Martin Boyle and Simon Murray started up front, with Anthony Stokes coming off the bench. Although Murray and Stokes scored their fair share of goals in the first half of the season, there is little doubt that Kamberi and Maclaren have represented an overall upgrade.
“Kamberi and Maclaren look more of a partnership than Stokes and Murray,” said Paterson. “Murray wanted to play through the middle and run in behind and Stokes preferred to drift out left and drop deeper. Some players just click together and other times it takes longer to form a partnership, but getting Maclaren and Kamberi in together has been a great piece of business by the manager. They’ve both more than proved they can play at this level. “It was a major surprise to see Simon Murray leave after all the goals he scored but Neil Lennon backs his own judgment and both of those guys have come in and done wonders for him. They’ve given Hibs that extra edge that they were maybe missing in the first half of the season. You had ability, movement and skill with Stokes and Murray, but now you have more of a focal point, especially with Kamberi.
“You need players up there who can bully defenders and hold the ball up and bring others into the game, and that’s something they didn’t really have earlier in the season.”
A further boost for Hibs is that, with most of their squad fit to make the trip north, centre-back Efe Ambrose is unlikely to be asked to fill in at right-back, as he was the last time at Pittodrie when David Gray was injured and Steven Whittaker was struggling with a pelvic problem so could only start on the bench.
Ambrose, who has otherwise been excellent this season, endured his most chastening afternoon of the season up against Aberdeen winger Gary Mackay-Steven in December, while the rest of the defence had a ragged look, prompting Lennon to replace both Darren McGregor and Marvin Bartley at half-time. The manager is likely to continue with the 3-5-2 formation which has served Hibs well in recent months whenever his main men have all been available.
“Hibs had a bit of a makeshift backline that day, with Efe Ambrose playing at right-back, and they gave away bad goals which put them on the back foot,” said Paterson. “By the time the manager made the changes at half-time, putting Steven Whittaker and Anthony Stokes on, the game was already lost. I don’t know how Neil will play it in terms of how he sets up, but I know as a centre-back I hated being out wide at full-back. You want to play in the middle. If most of his players are fit, Neil will want to have all his round pegs in round holes this weekend because it’s such a big game.”
The suspension of Aberdeen playmaker Kenny McLean can also be viewed as an advantage to Hibs. “There are certain players teams will miss and Kenny McLean is one of those for Aberdeen,” said Paterson. “He’s been excellent for them. He’s one of those big-time performers that Derek McInnes would love to have in the team and one that Neil Lennon will be delighted isn’t playing, but Aberdeen have still got enough quality to cope without him.”
Hibs have beaten every team in the league this season except St Johnstone, but Paterson believes they will need to deliver one of their strongest displays yet if they are to overcome Aberdeen this weekend.
“It will be down to Hibs to turn in one of their best performances of the season if they’re going to pick up three points,” he said. “But it’s a case of trying to keep doing what they’ve been doing for the last few months because they’ve managed to beat Aberdeen, Rangers and Celtic during this run. The confidence will be high, especially if they’re able to go up there with their best eleven.
“There’s not a lot between the two teams, so It will come down to who performs on the day. This is the kind of situation where you need your big-time players to show exactly why they are top performers. Both teams have guys like that who are in good form.
“I just hope it lives up to the hype because it’s got the makings of an absolute belter.
“It’s certainly there for either team to finish second and both will want to do it. A result on Saturday is an absolute must, especially for Hibs because they’re chasing at the moment. Hearts away and Rangers at home are big enough but I don’t think Neil Lennon will be looking any further than the weekend.”