James Collins: We want to be the ones to end Celtic’s run

James Collins scored a double last weekend. Pic: Jane Barlow
James Collins scored a double last weekend. Pic: Jane Barlow
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Whatever way you look at it, the odds appear heavily stacked against Hibs.

Celtic, after all, are the Scottish champions and lead the current race for the Premiership title by a commanding 13 points with games in hand over second-placed Aberdeen.

Neil Lennon’s side have clocked up 11 straight wins against Scottish opposition and haven’t conceded a goal in their last nine domestic matches. This remarkable run of clean sheets began with the 7-0 Scottish Cup demolition of Hearts at the start of December and, since then, there have been another eight shut-outs in the league.

In total, it has been 855 domestic minutes since Celtic goalkeeper Fraser Forster last had to retrieve the ball from his own net as Aberdeen’s Niall McGinn struck in a 3-1 win for the league leaders on November 23.

In stark contrast, Hibs are in a mini-rut. Terry Butcher’s side go into Sunday’s match seeking to avoid a third successive defeat, with a 1-0 loss in Aberdeen followed by last weekend’s 3-2 defeat at home to St Mirren in which they produced a dismal first-half performance before a second-half double from James Collins restored a touch of pride.

Little wonder, then, that some bookies are offering more than 7/1 on Hibs to become the first team to beat Celtic in the league despite the fact they are at home, while the Hoops are red-hot favourites to extend their unbeaten run to 22 games.

Such a record has prompted talk of whether or not Lennon’s men can negotiate their way through all 38 league games without suffering defeat.

Given their form so far, few would bet against it, but Hibs hitman Collins believes every team in the league will eye a showdown with Celtic as an opportunity to become the team that dashes their hopes of a flawless campaign.

Hibs are one of only three teams – Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Dundee United are the others – to have taken a point off Celtic this season.

In each instance it was the underdog in front until Lennon’s side demonstrated their credentials with late equalisers, Hibs themselves disappointed at seeing James Forrest level 13 minutes from time after they’d led through Paul Heffernan’s first-half strike at Easter Road back in October.

While Celtic claimed all three points when the sides went toe-to-toe again at Parkhead last month – Teemu Pukki ended his own personal drought to score the only goal of the match that day – Collins feels Hibs’ spirited performances on both occasions shouldn’t be forgotten as he and his team-mates assemble in the tunnel this time round.

Accepting Hibs face a tough 90 minutes on Sunday, the 22-year-old striker said: “Celtic are on an incredible run, they are obviously a very strong side with some great players, but when they were last at Easter Road we gave them a great game and maybe should have taken all three points, so they’ll be expecting it to be exactly the same this time.

“We also thought we might have taken something at Celtic Park. They’d scored in the first half, but I don’t think they looked like doing so again, while Liam Craig hit the post and we had a few half-chances. Hopefully it will be the same story on Sunday.”

Far from being intimidated, Collins believes Celtic’s impressive form and the equally striking list of records the are currently amassing will only act as additional motivation for opposing players, as will their stated goal of ending the league season unbeaten, a target which the likes of Dutch defender Virgil van Dijk outlined after they finished bottom of a Champions League group containing the illustrious trio of Barcelona, AC Milan and Ajax.

Collins, the former Aston Villa and Swindon Town striker, said: “Celtic have the money and budget and it would be a great achievement if they could go the whole season unbeaten in the league, but they’ll know they are going to have to work hard for it as everyone will want to become the team that ends their run.

“They were unlucky to be drawn in the group they were in the Champions League so it’s only natural for them to set themselves a new target, but I think it will only act as an incentive for everyone else.

“You always want to get the three points when you play against them because they are the main team in the league and everyone accepts it’s inevitable they will take the title again.

“They’re steaming away with it with half the season to go, but we’re more concerned about ourselves. We want to ensure we get a top-six finish so three points on Sunday would help no end.”

As a striker, Collins naturally harbours hopes that he can become the player to finally beat Forster, although he’d happily surrender that claim in return for a victory. With four goals in his last five games at Easter Road, Collins’ confidence is high, particularly as the return from injury of Paul Cairney and, in the last couple of weeks, Alex Harris has added some much-needed width to Hibs’ play. As a result, Hibs are, as demanded by Butcher, getting the ball into the opposition’s penalty area far more often, while the meticulous attention paid to set-pieces has also provided Hibs with extra threat.

This is evidenced by the fact Collins’ goals against St Mirren came from a corner and a free-kick, while the likes of Michael Nelson, Jordon Forster and Paul Hanlon have also helped themselves to goals from set-plays.

Collins said: “I thought Alex Harris was great every time he got on the ball against St Mirren, as was Sam Stanton. Having them back fit and playing can only benefit the side in general as well as myself as a striker. As for set-pieces, we work on them quite a lot and quite a few are paying off.

“The gaffer always has a new idea and we do believe every time we get a corner or a free-kick we will get something from it. Against a team like Celtic, set-pieces are always going to be important because they don’t give away too many chances otherwise. But if we get the quality of delivery right then we’ll cause anyone a problem. I’ve been lucky enough to get a few goals at home recently so hopefully that will be the case again come Sunday.”

If wrecking a few Celtic records isn’t incentive enough, Collins admitted turning in a improved performance following that “wretched” first half against the Buddies was, in itself, a good reason to shine this weekend. He said: “We know we let everyone down, so this is a great chance for us to repay the fans.”