Top-six focus: Hibs in pole position but must beware chasing pack
When Paul Heckingbottom took the reins a month ago, the top six looked some way off for Hibs.
Languishing in eighth place, five points adrift of sixth-place St Johnstone and a point beneath on-form Motherwell with just eight games to play before the split, the Edinburgh side seemed likely to be playing out the campaign in the bottom six.
Heckingbottom’s swift impact, however, has led Hibs to a position whereby, in just his fifth league game in charge, they can take a huge step towards securing their place among the top six. An impressive return of ten points from a possible 12 in the Yorkshireman’s opening four matches in charge has already allowed the Hibees to leapfrog both Motherwell and St Johnstone and, temporarily at least, take hold of sixth place. With a two-point advantage over the seventh-place Lanarkshire side, this weekend’s meeting between the two teams at Easter Road marks an opportunity for Hibs to turn the screw in what appears to be a four-way battle for one remaining top-six berth, assuming the top five have already done enough to make the cut.
Here we take a look at the prospects of the four teams scrapping it out for that final place among the big boys.
The Easter Road side have to be viewed as favourites to keep hold of their top-six berth until the split. In addition to a two-point advantage over Motherwell, a four-point lead over St Johnstone and a five-point gap to Livingston, they also possess momentum and a general sense of renewed harmony following the tumultuous ending to Neil Lennon’s reign as manager. Their four remaining pre-split fixtures don’t look particularly straightforward but neither should they be viewed as overly daunting. Faced with Motherwell at home, Livingston away, Kilmarnock at home and Hearts away, Hibs clearly still have plenty work to do to ensure they are in the top six. Having enjoyed a nine-point swing over St Johnstone in the last four games, the Easter Road side must be mindful of the possibility that it can just as quickly go back the other way if they start spilling points over the next few campaign-defining weeks. All four of the sides they still have to face are currently either fighting for the top six or a European spot so are unlikely to be in end-of-season holiday mode. Much will depend on how this weekend’s match goes. If they can avoid defeat against rampant Motherwell, they will remain in the driving seat with three games to go and will be entitled to feel that they are closing in on the top six. If, however, they suffer a first league defeat under Heckingbottom and are simultaneously overtaken by Well, then suddenly those last three matches will become a lot more pressure-filled and hazardous-looking. Ideally, Hibs don’t want to be concluding their pre-split fixtures at Tynecastle, where they haven’t won for six years, in need of a result to remain in the top six. Victory over Motherwell this weekend would certainly make the home straight appear a whole lot more negotiable for Heckingbottom’s team.
While Hibs have been in good form under Heckingbottom over the past month, Motherwell have been excelling since the turn of the year, with seven wins from their last nine league games propelling them into the mid-table mix. Their only league defeat this year has come at Celtic Park. Ordinarily, Stephen Robinson’s on-form side would be favourites to kick on and take the final top-six berth, even allowing for the fact they are two points below Hibs. The problem for the Fir Park side, however, is that they have probably the most difficult run-in of the four teams involved. With Hibs away, St Johnstone at home, Aberdeen away and Rangers at home, Robinson will require some serious heroics from his players over the coming weeks if they are to maintain their excellent form and clinch an unlikely top-six berth. Even if they damage their two main rivals by picking up results in their next two games - which is well within their capabilities - they would probably still require a decent haul from their last two games against the Dons and the Ibrox side in order to get over the line. It looks a tall order for the Lanarkshire side.
• ST JOHNSTONE
Saints will be kicking themselves over how they have allowed themselves to fall away over the past month and a half. After defeating Livingston 1-0 on January 23 – the night of Lennon’s last game in charge of Hibs – the Perth side sat fifth in the Premiership, seven points clear of the bottom six with a game in hand. Since then, however, they have collected only one point from eight league games and now find their top-six bid hanging by a thread. Although four points adrift of Hibs and completely shorn of form, Tommy Wright can take some solace from the fact Saints have the most favourable run of fixtures out of the four teams. They have a clear chance to get back on track when they host bottom-of-the-table St Mirren on Saturday. Given that St Johnstone have a habit of winning – and losing – in spurts under Wright, if they win this weekend and restore some confidence, they will feel it is within their grasp to take a significant points haul from a three-game finale in which they visit Motherwell, host Dundee and travel to Kilmarnock. Victory over St Mirren is imperative to their hopes, though.
Gary Holt’s team are probably only in contention in mathematical terms. Realistically, they look destined to remain in the bottom six. While wiping out a five-point deficit and overtaking three teams in the space of just four games would be a tall order in any circumstances, Livingston’s plight is exacerbated by the fact they must face two of the top three in their closing pre-split matches. After a poor run of form through the winter, they have given themselves a glimmer of hope by winning two of their last three games. With a trip to Aberdeen this weekend followed by home games against Hibs and Hamilton Accies and then a visit to Celtic Park, it would go down as a footballing miracle if Livingston find themselves in with the big boys in a month’s time.