Hibs star Lewis Stevenson today claimed snuffing out the threat of former team-mate Anthony Stokes will improve the Easter Road outfit’s chances of claiming a place in the semi- finals of the Scottish Communities League Cup no end.
The Republic of Ireland hitman has returned to haunt his old club time after time since his £1.4 million move to Celtic a year ago, scoring four times in three matches, ending up a winner on each occasion.
And on the one time the former Arsenal, Falkirk and Sunderland striker didn’t get on the scoresheet he still finished on the winning side, his first against Hibs, a 2-1 victory at Celtic Park in September 2010.
While Stokes’ record speaks for itself, Stevenson believes keeping him quiet for once will go a long way to helping Colin Calderwood’s team, currently struggling at the foot of the SPL table, pull off what many would regard as a shock result in tonight’s quarter-final clash at Easter Road.
The little midfielder said: “We know all about Stokesy, he always seems to score against us. There’s no doubt he’s the big danger to us, he gets himself into the right positions and he’s a clinical finisher. It will be tough, but if we can keep him out then our chances have to improve.
“Having said that, though, we can’t simply concentrate on stopping him because Gary Hooper is just as dangerous, while Celtic have also been getting goals from all sorts of positions.”
Although Stokes is essentially seen as a goal scorer, Stevenson is adamant the work he does outside the box goes largely un-noticed as a result, saying: “I think he’s got a lot more ability than people give him credit for.
“They think because of his goal scoring record all he can do is finish but his work away from goal is good, I feel he wouldn’t look out of place if he was asked to play in midfield.”
As lethal as Stokes and Hooper may have proved, Stevenson insisted Hibs carry their own threat in front of goal with Garry O’Connor, the top flight’s leading scorer, while Scotland Under-21 star Leigh Griffiths getting off the mark with a double which helped sink St Mirren at the weekend.
And while he agrees Calderwood’s team have been shipping too many goals for their own good, Stevenson argued the experience of holding on for that narrow victory in Paisley – Hibs surviving a second-half onslaught from the Buddies – will stand them in good stead tonight.
He said: “We never seem to make it easy for ourselves, we always seem to be involved in exciting matches. But scoring goals hasn’t been the biggest problem. Even when we were 3-1 down to Dundee United we came back to draw 3-3.
“But the win against St Mirren has lifted everyone and you can see the skip in Sparky’s [Griffiths] step after getting those two goals. These are the games everyone wants to be involved in, under the lights at Easter Road and live on television against one of the Old Firm.”
The bookies may have made Celtic red-hot favourites going into the game but Stevenson, who can boast a reasonable personal record of four wins and two draws out of 12 matches against the Hoops, believes every other team left in the competition will be backing Hibs tonight.
He said: “With Rangers and Hearts already out I’d imagine drawing Celtic was the one no-one really wanted. There’s nothing, though, you can do about the draw you just have to play whoever you get.
“Now I’d imagine that the other teams will be hoping we can beat Celtic. If that were to happen then the four teams in the semi-finals would all fancy their chances of going on to lift the trophy.”
Stevenson is all too aware of that scenario with St Johnstone beating Rangers and Falkirk eliminating Celtic at this stage four years ago, results which opened the way for John Collins’ Hibs to enjoy an epic 5-1 victory over Kilmarnock at Hampden in the final, the Easter Road club’s first silverware in 16 years.
Named man-of-the-match that day, Stevenson naturally has fond memories of that campaign and insisted both he and Ivan Sproule, back at Hibs for a second spell, will use those experiences tonight.
He said: “I really only played in the semi-final against St Johnstone at Tynecastle and the final itself, but Ivan played all the way through and if we can put Celtic out then anything can happen.
“A win also gives you something to look forward to with the semi-finals not taking place until the New Year. I
“I’m sure it would give everyone at the club a lift, not least the supporters.”
Celtic may have been the team everyone wanted to avoid, but Stevenson questioned whether this might just be the time to have drawn them with Neil Lennon’s players already under pressure having fallen ten points behind arch-rivals Rangers in the race for the SPL title.
Hibs, of course, travel to Parkhead on Saturday for the second leg of a cup and league double-header but Kirkcaldy-born Stevenson wonders whether SPL points might, just might be of primary importance to Celtic.
He said: “Like Rangers, Celtic look to win every competition they enter so I am sure they’ll be looking to put us out tonight and then forget about the League Cup for a few months.
“But they’ve had a tough run of matches as they are also involved in the Europa League which makes this their third match in six days while we’ve had an extra 24 hours to recover with our game at the weekend being on the Saturday and their’s on the Sunday.
“They’ve also got a few injuries to consider with a couple more added to that list after their win over Aberdeen so perhaps they’ve got less scope to make changes for tonight and then Saturday.
“I also believe they won’t be overjoyed at the game being at Easter Road as they know they always get a tough match here. But they’ve been in this situation many times before and I’m sure they’ll focus entirely on tonight and worry about Saturday afterwards, just as we must do.”