ANTHONY BROWN takes a close look at tomorrow’s League Cup clash at Tynecastle ...
Hibs will be hoping to ensure Tynecastle remains an unhappy semi-final hunting ground for St Johnstone. This is the first time the Easter Road side have made it to the last four of the League Cup since 2007, when, coincidentally, they defeated Saints in Gorgie before going on to beat Kilmarnock 5-1 in the final. St Johnstone have been to this stage twice since then, with their most recent semi-final bringing a 4-0 defeat against Aberdeen at the home of Hearts two seasons ago. Hibs’ prospects appear to be heightened by the fact their supporters will pack out three of Tynecastle’s four stands. They will be hoping this perceived advantage redresses the fact they are currently operating a division below their opponents. Despite being effectively nine places beneath Saints in the Scottish football pecking order, there is a strong argument that Hibs, player for player, have a higher-calibre squad. While Michael O’Halloran is an obvious talisman for Saints, their strength lies in a team ethic which has allowed a relatively modest group of players to punch above their weight in recent seasons.
Hibs, who are second in the Championship, have won 18 of their last 22 games in all competitions and have lost only once since August. They go into this tie buoyed by the knowledge their four matches against top-flight opponents since Alan Stubbs took charge have brought three victories and a draw in the regulation 90 minutes. Saints, fifth in the Premiership, are in poor form, having won none and lost four of their last six matches. They have scored only one goal in this time, which doesn’t bode well for a clash with a Hibs side which has kept 14 clean sheets in their 27 matches this season. The Perth side can at least take encouragement from their 3-1 win away to Championship leaders Rangers earlier in this competition.
For Hibs, it’s Jason Cummings. It remains to be seen if Anthony Stokes will be deemed fit enough to start, and whether or not the on-loan Celtic striker currently has the sharpness to make an impact in such a big match, so Hibs’ most dependable attacking option has to be Cummings. The 20-year-old has matured this season and, with 17 goals already, is well on track to beat last season’s tally of 21. He will relish the chance to show he’s still Hibs’ main marksman by firing them into a final. St Johnstone’s key player is O’Halloran. Much will depend on the 25-year-old talisman’s mindset in light of interest from Rangers which prompted manager Tommy Wright to rest him a couple of weeks ago. The speedy winger, who can also play centrally, is the man the Perth side look to for attacking impetus, and, although not a prolific scorer, he has played a crucial role in ensuring his team have spent most of the campaign comfortably stationed in the top six.
THE ENGINE ROOM
Hibs are widely deemed to have their best midfield in almost a decade, with Fraser Fyvie, John McGinn, Liam Henderson and Dylan McGeouch regularly dominating matches. Supporters are entitled to hope that they can do likewise against a Saints midfield likely to contain Liam Craig and David Wotherspoon, two players deemed surplus at Easter Road in recent years.
Given how comfortable he has looked as Hibs’ head coach, it is easy to forget that 44-year-old Liverpudlian Stubbs is still a relative rookie. His first 18 months managing at senior level have gone well. He has galvanised a Hibs side who were in the doldrums when he took over and is widely viewed as one of the brightest emerging coaches in Britain. However, by his own admission, he now needs tangible success. Losing in the semi-finals of the play-offs and the Scottish Cup last year rankled with Stubbs, and, still heavily involved in three competitions this season, he’d love to start augmenting his burgeoning reputation with silverware. As for Tommy Wright, the 52-year-old Belfast man has worked wonders at St Johnstone since stepping up from his role as Steve Lomas’s assistant two-and-a-half years ago. The former goalkeeper, who had only previously managed in his homeland, is on course for a third successive top-six finish and has already delivered the 2014 Scottish Cup. Eye-catching results in Europe have also boosted his stock level and helped cast him as one of the most impressive managers in Scotland.