Hibs have Rangers casting nervous looks

Jason Cummings is enjoying a fine run of form at the moment, and the striker was on target again against Alloa to give Hibs a narrow but deserved win
Jason Cummings is enjoying a fine run of form at the moment, and the striker was on target again against Alloa to give Hibs a narrow but deserved win
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It’s scarcely believable to think that little more than three weeks ago, Hibs were all but written off as contenders for the Championship title.

A win for Rangers against the Capital club back on the first day of November would have put Rangers 11 points clear at the top and, as many were predicting, would see the Ibrox club out of sight, rendering Alan Stubbs’ players nothing more than also-rans in the title race.

Today, though, the Easter Road outfit are up there with their Glasgow rivals, an eighth consecutive league win and a run of 15 matches unbeaten hauling them level on points, albeit Rangers have a game in hand and a better goal difference.

It’s a remarkable turn of events and one which, claimed Hibs striker Farid El Alagui, have Mark Warburton’s players glancing nervously over their shoulders.

“If I was a Rangers player,” insisted El Alagui, “I’d be looking back in the mirror and seeing that, yes, Hibs are here with us, that it’s not just a case of going out on the pitch and winning games.”

It was that 2-1 victory over Rangers in Edinburgh a few weeks ago which El Alagui believes was the turning point.

He said: “We could see Rangers winning games like Hearts did last year and we didn’t want to see the gap get too big.

“So I think winning that game was a massive message to them to show that we are ready to fight to the end of the season.”

Arriving back in the away dressing-room at the Indodrill Stadium, victory over Alloa Athletic secured thanks to Jason Cummings’ 14th goal of the season on the hour mark, to discover Rangers had been held to a draw by Livingston was, El Alagui conceded, something of a bonus for him and his team-mates.

But, he insisted, Hibs have to keep their winning streak going, something which would set up a Christmas cracker at Ibrox at the end of next month.

And he believes that over the course of the past few weeks Stubbs’ players have shown they have whatever it might take to win any particular match. Having seen Rangers put four past Danny Lennon’s side and then Falkirk score another five, many Hibs fans might have been anticipating a “goals-fest”, but as Lewis Stevenson had insisted prior to kick-off, a 1-0 win would be good enough.

So it proved, with Alloa difficult to break down and giving Hibs few chances to test former Easter Road keeper Andy McNeil and then, after he departed injured at the interval, his replacement David Crawford.

Again, patience was the key which finally unlocked that packed defence, John McGinn picking up a loose clearance from Wasps defender Dougie Hill – later sent off for clattering Cummings and El Alagui in the space of three minutes – and threading a pass through for Hibs leading scorer to calmly slide into the net.

“I had the ultimate confidence there was only going to be one outcome,” said head coach Stubbs as he saw Cummings bear in on goal. “Jason had a lot of time to think about it, but it you are a good striker you have to be able to cope with different types of situations.

“You have to be able to be instinctive at times and you have to show composure. Jason is getting better, everyone can see that he is a different player to the one I inherited 18 months ago.”

Hibs themselves are a totally different animal to those days, as El Alagui agreed, pointing out how they’d lost at this very ground early last season as the team Stubbs had been forced to hastily throw together struggled to find their feet.

The former Falkirk and Brentford hitman said: “We know it wasn’t pretty, but I think it shows how strong we are. We knew it was going to be a tough game but we managed to win it in a kind of dirty way.

“Against Livingston last midweek it wasn’t easy and it wasn’t nice to watch, but we’ve taken six points when last season we might have crumbled and drawn or lost. And that shows how far we have come – there’s been a big improvement.”

The Indodrill Stadium was, of course, where El Alagui suffered that horrific injury, a torn Achilles tendon which has left him battling to find full fitness since, the French-Moroccan having made only fleeting appearances in the intervening period.

But, he revealed, he had no worries about playing, Stubbs having consulted him beforehand as to how he felt about the possibility of being called from the bench at some point during proceedings.

Agreeing with his boss that his 27 minutes in place of Dominique Malonga had helped “exorcise the demons,” El Alagui said: “The gaffer had a chat with me asking if I was all right. But it’s like falling off a bike, you have to jump back on and go again.

“It was where I was injured and there are bad memories and maybe I thought about it when I came on but you just get on with it. There was no doubt in my mind, I’ve worked hard to come back for quite a long time so when you are asked you say yes because you are ready.”

Seeing El Alagui return to action offers Stubbs yet another option and further competition for Cummings, James Keatings, Dominique Malonga and Martin Boyle, but both are agreed that it will still be some time before Hibs fans see him back at his best.

Stubbs said: “It was such a horrific injury and to be able to come back after spending that much time out has put the demons away.

“I don’t want to put any pressure on Farid, he is not where he would probably like to be. It will be a slow process but I think right now it’s ideal he can come on and have an impact – he gives us a different element.”

And while admitting he still has some way to go before he can claim to be fully fit, El Alagui pointed out that such has been the form of his team-mates he can hardly expect to walk straight back into the side.

He said: “I have to try to catch them, but they will make it as hard as they can for me. But I will keep them on their toes and push them as much as I can. I can’t expect to just step in and start games right away.

“I need game time. I’ve spoken to the gaffer about it and I appreciate what he says that I’m not 100 per cent. But step by step he’s going to make sure I am 100 per cent.”