Liam Fontaine believes Hibs can capitalise on potential fatigue and edginess in the Rangers team in today’s Scottish Premiership play-off semi-final second leg.
Stuart McCall’s side head to Easter Road bidding to defend a 2-0 advantage from Wednesday’s first leg at Ibrox. It will be the Glasgow club’s fourth high-stakes match in a fortnight after they had to come through a tense two-legged quarter-final against Queen of the South. Hibs, by contrast, had an 18-day break between their win at Falkirk on the last day of the regulation season and their trip to Ibrox. They spent some of this time tuning up at a warm-weather training camp in Spain.
Although Rangers seized the initiative during the week, Fontaine senses that the Ibrox side may be about to feel the effects of their gruelling schedule, and the centre-back is hopeful that, allied to Hibs’ perceived extra freshness, the hosts will be able to overcome their visitors by at least two goals this lunchtime and maintain their hopes of promotion.
“I think there’s going to be tiredness for Rangers,” he said. “They might say they’re not tired, but we’re all human and to play that many games that quickly, it’s going to be tiring mentally and physically. It’s going to be a case of who is the most concentrated and bright on the day.”
Fontaine is adamant that Hibs were not afflicted by rustiness on Wednesday. “I actually felt really good, personally. I thought we played well as a team. We had the time off and I think it was handled in the right way. Time will tell how fresh we’re both going to be for the second leg.”
McCall himself admitted his side were feeling the effects of their gruelling run of games in the closing stages of Wednesday’s win. Fontaine also believes anxiety was evident in Rangers’ play towards the end as they fought valiantly to keep their two-goal lead intact. With the Ibrox side shouldering a burden of expectation as they head west, Fontaine is hopeful that Hibs, who know they must win by at least two clear goals, can take advantage of any doubt in the visiting camp about how to approach such a cataclysmic game.
“I think there was definitely nerves from them at the end,” he said. “They had the lead and were defending it, rightly so. We were pressing and we’ve got to do the same at Easter Road. We’ve got to be high tempo and be relentless. It’s going to take a big effort, we know that. But the good thing is that we know what we have to do. We have to score goals and that’s in everyone’s mind.”
Hibs were widely deemed to have played at least as well as Rangers on Wednesday, with McCall conceding that the result flattered his team. Fontaine believes that, if his team can bare their teeth in front of goal, they are perfectly equipped to restore parity in the tie and then look to go on and win it.
“I thought we actually played all right on Wednesday night, to be honest, and that’s what I picked up from people I’ve spoken to,” he said. “Obviously we didn’t score the goal and the other obvious one is not to concede a goal. There’s going to be chances in the games for both teams and it’s going to be a case of who concentrates the most and makes the least mistakes.
“It’s obviously going to be vital that we’re strong defensively. The first goal is important but everyone knows that 2-0 is a funny scoreline in football, isn’t it?
“It’s going to be a game of massive concentration, from the back lots’ point of view and from a team point of view. Even getting up to that final third, there’s a form of concentration up there to pick the right pass at the right time and scoring a goal.”
Hibs, of course, can source inspiration for today’s salvage mission from the fact they have already defeated Rangers by two clear goals on three separate occasions this season. A 4-0 win at Easter Road in late December was the most comprehensive of these victories. “I think there’s a lot of results throughout the season, not just against Rangers, that show we are capable of scoring goals, and everyone knows that,” said Fontaine. “We created a couple of chances the other night and we didn’t score again, it’s as simple as that. It’s going to be a case of we know we can score goals and that’s what we have to go out and do.”
As always in such situations, while early goals are the ideal scenario for the chasing team, patience is likely to be required among Hibs’ people. “Even if it’s 0-0 at half-time, that definitely wouldn’t be the worst thing,” Fontaine continued. “If it is 0-0, it’s exactly the same situation as it is now. We’ll know exactly what we have to do in the last 45 minutes.
“I would just ask the fans to do exactly what they’ve been doing all season. From a personal point of view, I think they’ve been great. They’ve been great supporters both home and away, and we’re going to need that. We’ll need their support.
“We’ve had a good season on the pitch and with the style of football the gaffer has implemented, and we’re just going to need them, to be honest. It’s going to be a good occasion and if we can get the result it will be massive for them because it’s obviously at Easter Road as well.”
Fontaine knows that if his side are going to complete the comeback and set up a play-off final showdown with Motherwell, extra-time and penalties may be required.
“The lads practise penalties throughout the season anyway, just after training when we’re having a little knock-around,” he said when asked if they had been preparing for such an outcome. “You’ll see the majority of the lads will grab a goalie and tell him to get in the nets and have a penalty shoot-out. It’s just like having fun on the park.
“It’s got the potential to go there. If it goes to extra-time then we have to face it and if it goes to penalties then it goes to penalties. I’d rather take the result within the 90 minutes, but if it does take extra-time it takes extra-time. First and foremost we have to go out there and get the goals back, that’s the first aim.”
Fontaine admits that, with Scott Allan, the PFA Championship player of the year, providing a regular supply of ammunition, Hibs must capitalise better on any set-pieces they get today. The Easter Road side won 13 corners at Ibrox – Rangers had just one – yet were unable to seriously test home goalkeeper Cammy Bell. “Set-pieces are always vital,” said the defender. “We had a lot the other night and Dom [Malonga], especially, had a great chance from a set-piece. Scottie’s got great delivery so any team would be anxious when he’s putting balls into the box. As a defender going up for corners, it’s great to have someone like that. Sometimes you just have to commit to a run and if you get into an area where Scottie’s ball’s coming in, you’ve always got a chance. We had a lot of corners on Wednesday. We’ll have to put on that kind of pressure at Easter Road, but this time put the ball in the net.”