We take a look at five key points at the half-way stage of the Scottish Premiership play-off quarter-final between Hibs and Raith Rovers:
• Deja vu for Hibs
Hibs played well, looked to be in control of the match and had enough chances to win, but ultimately lost. This was the case in last season’s Scottish Cup semi-final against Falkirk, the first leg of the play-off semi-final against Rangers a year ago, the August trip to Ibrox in the league, the recent League Cup final against Ross County and again against Raith Rovers on Wednesday. There is a temptation to suggest Hibs are perennial line-fluffers. The counter argument to this is that they dominate most games they play and generally create several chances and end up winning, as they have done in the majority of their league and cup matches over the past season. For instance, no-one could claim they flattered to deceive in the League Cup semi-final against St Johnstone, or the two Scottish Cup games against Hearts, or the two home games against Rangers. The suggestion that they are constantly falling short only comes up on the few occasions that they fail to turn their superiority into victory. Perhaps the fact they rarely succumb meekly under Alan Stubbs is what makes their current status as trailing play-off quarter-finalists all the more galling for the Hibs support.
• Hibs’ home record provides an obvious source of hope
Since losing 6-2 to Rangers in the Petrofac Cup last July, Hibs have been beaten only once at home – against Morton in February. In all competitions, they have won 19, drawn four and lost two of their 25 matches at Easter Road this season. Rangers, Hearts, Aberdeen and Dundee United have all been vanquished amid a big-match atmosphere in Leith. Raith Rovers have lost there twice this term without scoring a goal. Hibs have scored at least two goals in each of their last five home games. Raith, for all their impressive form in recent months, will have to buck some Easter Road trends if they are to hold on to their slender first-leg advantage.
• Dylan McGeouch is required
Raith Rovers, with the fit-again Craig Barr in immense form, were well organised on Wednesday and are likely to be an equally tough nut to crack on Saturday. Aside from Anthony Stokes, no-one at Hibs possesses more guile to unlock a defence than McGeouch. The midfielder hasn’t started a game for two months due to injury but is now back in the frame. Even if not fully fit, he should be deployed in the home midfield from the start. His energy, composure and general quality make Hibs a more formidable proposition.
• Selection posers for Alan Stubbs
Aside from whether or not to field McGeouch, the head coach has a few other decisions to make. Does he restore Mark Oxley, the No.1 for the bulk of the last two seasons, or stick with Conrad Logan who, for all his heroics in last month’s Scottish Cup semi-final, looked unconvincing at Raith’s goal? Regardless of the perception of the two goalkeepers’ shot-stopping ability, Oxley remains in far better physical shape than the Irishman, and that has to be considered at this crucial juncture of the season. The deployment of a 3-5-2 worked pretty well in general play and there is little obvious reason to change it unless Stubbs feels the need to add the energy of both Liam Henderson and McGeouch to the mix. The front area of the team may need tweaked for the second leg. Anthony Stokes and Jason Cummings are both considered big game players and both are in reasonably good form on an individual basis. However, there remains a sense that they are not quite clicking as a pair and that they both work better when partnered by James Keatings.
In short, without the need for wholesale changes, an argument could be made for several of the subs from Wednesday night to be considered for starting duty on Saturday.
• Hibs fans need to keep their heads
Raith Rovers have made no secret of their intention to try and frustrate Hibs and prey on the anxiety of the home support in what promises to be a nervy second leg. It is understandable that the Hibs fans will arrive at Easter Road on tenterhooks, but Saturday will be a day when the players will need unwavering support from the stands. Even if Raith take the lead and go 2-0 up on aggregate, it is imperative that the fans don’t resort to the unnerving howls of derision that became commonplace prior to Alan Stubbs’ arrival two years ago. Hibs rescued the Scottish Cup tie against Hearts while 2-0 down going into the last ten minutes at Tynecastle in February. Falkirk did likewise at Easter Road just a few weeks ago. An early goal, although preferable, must not be deemed essential as any sense of unease in the stadium while Hibs are trailing will play right into Rovers’ hands.