As Hibs head to Rangers on Monday in a massive clash at the top of the Ladbrokes Championship, we look at five factors that could decide who takes the spoils come full-time at Ibrox.
The midfield battle
When Hibs won John McGinn’s appeal against his red card a couple of weeks ago against Falkirk, it freed him up for this match. That result is potentially as big as any of the others Hibs have posted on the pitch this season. McGinn has been, by in large, exceptional in the Hibs engine room this season, defending tenaciously, attacking with intent and keeping possession diligently. Moreover, when Hibs and Rangers met at Easter Road in October when the Hibees prevailed 2-1, McGinn dominated the midfield, ably assisted by Liam Henderson, Fraser Fyvie, Dylan McGeouch and Marvin Bartley. A combination of that quintet are likely to start today and how they perform will be key. McGinn will be the main man and Rangers need to stifle him, but they also need to get into Fyvie’s face. The Aberdonian so often links defence and midfield in a deeper role, while Rangers must not allow McGeouch and Henderson to keep the ball and slip Hibs’ strikers and full-backs in. The hosts will probably go with Nicky Law, Andy Halliday and Jason Holt in their midfield. It’s hard to argue right now that they are superior to Hibs’ crop, but today they must at least match them, because if Hibs’ midfield gets a grip on proceedings, Rangers will find it tough to wrestle it from them.
Bizarrely, Rangers’ back-four are key in not only keeping out goals but creating them. Full-backs James Tavernier and Lee Wallace haven’t been playing as well as they did earlier in the season, but if they turn it on today then Hibs will have to be wary. Tavernier has scored six goals in the league and Wallace five. Their goal-threat cannot be underestimated. They are also chief suppliers to top-scorer Martyn Waghorn (more about him later) and if Hibs can stop them rampaging forward, then they’ll quell some of Rangers’ most dangerous outlets. At the other end, Rangers need to sort out their issues at centre-back. Danny Wilson and Rob Kiernan performed poorly at Falkirk last week in a 2-1 defeat and haven’t looked especially assured throughout the campaign. Their third centre-half, Tottenham loanee Dominic Ball, has barely fared better. Rangers need to improve in this department, as Hibs have the firepower to hurt them.
Martyn Waghorn v Jason Cummings
This match could be a tale of two strikers. Waghorn is the league’s top-scorer with 16 goals and is by far and away Rangers’ most potent attacker. He’s strong, intelligent and scores all manner of goals, from long-rangers to penalties (a fair few of the latter, it must be said). Hibs’ talisman is Cummings with ten league goals to his name. He’s already scored twice against the Gers this season and netted four against them in the last campaign too. He hasn’t rippled the rigging since a 1-0 win at Alloa last month, so by his standards he’s on something of a drought, but he often comes alive in the big matches. He missed a good chance at Ibrox earlier in the season in Rangers’ 1-0 win and will need to be less wasteful today. Both teams will be desperate for their hit-men to arrive at Govan in the mood for this one.
Mark Warburton v Alan Stubbs
Ah, the two managers. Anyone sick of their war of words yet? Not us. Stubbs has been the main antagonist in the pre-match press conferences, the Hibs boss persistently upping the ante with barbs towards his Rangers counterpart Warburton, who, for his part, has tried to keep a lid on things. Forget what they’ve been saying ahead of this though – it’s all about what they do in the dug-outs today. Warburton started off this season with Stubbs’ number, winning the Petrofac Cup tie 6-2 before a narrow 1-0 win in the league back in August. Stubbs, to his credit, set his team out well in the 2-1 win over Rangers in October and Warburton got it wrong by fielding three centre-halves at Easter Road, which is against Rangers’ usual style of a flat four in defence. What that match showed is that Rangers are less flexible than Hibs. The Gers are at their best in a 4-3-3 formation, but when that doesn’t work, there isn’t an effective plan B. Stubbs, on the other hand, has drilled Hibs into a pretty dexterous unit. They can play 4-4-2, 4-1-2-1-2 or 3-5-2 and achieve results. Warburton can’t be sure how Hibs will line-up and, importantly, Stubbs has the squad and the tactics to adapt mid-match. Warburton will need to match that and the tactics behind this clash will be fascinating.
The Ibrox crowd
Rangers’ home will be packed to the gunnels for this one. Last season, when Hibs won twice in Govan, Ibrox was half-empty and the natives were restless as then-manager Ally McCoist‘s team fell away early on in the title race. It’s a much difference place these days, however. Warburton has galvanised Rangers this term and, in the main, the Gers’ support has been positive. Ibrox is a far more hostile venue for away teams rather than the hosts. Hibs, though, can turn the crowd against Rangers if they can nullify them early on or, even better, take the lead. Rangers have dropped four points in their last two games and their lead over the Hibees has been whittled away. The Rangers fans will get anxious if Hibs can dictate play early on. It’s a well-worn cliché, but the first goal is crucial. If Rangers get it, Ibrox will explode into a cacophony of positive energy and drive the hosts on. If Hibs get it, Warburton’s men may really feel the heat for the first time this season.