How Hibs might hope to upset Rangers in must-win clash - Kukharevych X factor, 96 minutes, and Beale selection shake-up
The Ibrox side have finished in second place ahead of a summer overhaul in Govan, whereas Hibs are still seeking European qualification and, tall order though it may be, a third-place finish. To finish best of the rest the Capital club needs a lot of things to fall into place elsewhere as well as seeking as many points as they can from their remaining three fixtures against the Gers, Celtic, and finally Hearts on the last day of the season.
Matches between the two teams have been fascinating this term – Hibs leaving it late to pick up a 2-2 draw in August, twice taking the lead at Ibrox in December only to lose 3-2, and getting off to a fast start in March before succumbing to one of Rangers’ best performances of the campaign.
So what needs to happen for Hibs to, ideally, get a positive result?
Kukharevych X factor
Mykola Kukharevych hasn’t played as much as he or Lee Johnson would have liked since signing a season-long loan from ESTAC Troyes but when he has played he has been more than a handful for opposition defences. Indeed, he has six goal contributions in 15 appearances. The Ukrainian forward was rated 50/50 for involvement by Johnson ahead of the 2-1 victory over St Mirren and assessed as a ‘risk we might have to take’ ahead of the goalless draw at Aberdeen. In the end the 21-year-old featured in neither matchday squad but having returned to training, could very well be primed for involvement against Rangers on Sunday.
Whether or not he starts might depend on whether Johnson wants to go for a two-man forward line and in what formation. Hibs are not blessed with a host of wide options with Martin Boyle and Aiden McGeady both out injured and against St Mirren and Aberdeen Chris Cadden and Élie Youan played on the flanks in similar 4-1-4-1 formations.
Last time Rangers came to Easter Road in March Johnson opted for a 5-3-2 formation with Cadden and Marijan Čabraja as full-backs; CJ Egan-Riley, Will Fish, and Paul Hanlon as the centre-backs, Jimmy Jeggo and Josh Campbell as the deep-lying midfielders, and Ewan Henderson sitting behind a front two of Youan and Matthew Hoppe, with Kevin Nisbet on the bench as he returned from a hamstring complaint. That is unlikely to happen again. Kukharevych may have to contend with a substitute’s role but he could have a serious impact off the bench if Johnson wants to change things up tactically or on a personnel front.
Playing for 96 minutes
Johnson likes using a footballing bon mot, and he likes using them more than once. One of his particular favourites over the past season has been his wish for Hibs to keep playing ‘for 96 minutes’ – effectively instructing his players to be ‘on it’ for the full 90 minutes and stoppage time. When one considers how many late goals Hibs have scored, and how few they have conceded, it would appear to be a mantra that has some success.
But there are still times when Hibs just seem to switch off; something Johnson has identified as a weak spot as he continues his efforts in transforming the side. One of his other oft-used phrases is how there is ‘still a lot of work to do’, or intimating that the project is still in its infancy.
Even with a handful of players potentially missing from the team that blew Hibs away a couple of months back, the Gers will still be formidable opposition. Hibs kept going into injury time against the Ibrox side back in August, when Campbell’s late goal earned a share of the points, and started strongly in March with Hoppe engineering a goal in the opening eight minutes. This weekend they have to put that together, along with a resilient performance in between if they are to give themselves the best chance of a positive result.
Michael Beale has spoken at length about his plans to overhaul his squad at Ibrox and has already started planning for the future. Speaking after the Scottsih Cup semi-final defeat by Celtic at the end of last month he said it would be the ‘biggest rebuild this club will have seen in a number of years’. Seven players are out of contract while Malik Tillman’s future – on loan but with Rangers holding an option to buy – still unconfirmed.
Ryan Kent is out of contract and has been heavily linked with a move to Turkey while Antonio Čolak appears to be out of favour with Beale. Both played key roles in the March hammering at Easter Road so while their likely absence could be a boost Hibs will also have to be wary of the Ibrox fringe players who will be seeking to make an impact in the final few games of the season – players such as Scott Wright, who could start on Sunday, or Rıdvan Yılmaz who is expected to continue at left-back having started Rangers’ first two post-split matches.
There were times earlier this season when Youan had a tendency to leave his full-back high and dry. But the defensive side of his game has come on leaps and bounds and particularly against St Mirren in the first post-split match, his efforts to support Lewis Stevenson were as admirable as his workrate in the final third.
Hibs need him to be similarly switched on at both ends of the pitch this weekend if they are to not only take something from the game, but keep the visitors frustrated for as long as possible. There are several potential match-winners in the Hibs squad but the mercurial Frenchman perhaps has that extra je ne sais quoi that could prove key on Sunday.