HIBS skipper James McPake today admitted victory over Celtic won’t halt the Glasgow outfit’s march towards another SPL title – but it will help put the Easter Road side back on track to achieve their own ambition of finishing the season in second place.
While some will question the big defender’s claim given recent results for Pat Fenlon’s players, just four points taken from their last seven matches in a run which has seen them slip to fourth place and 12 points behind the champions, McPake insisted his ambition remained undiminished.
He said: “I still firmly believe we can finish second. I think that’s still our aim. At the start of season everyone was saying ‘finish in the top six’, but, for me at this football club, that is under-achieving. For me, that is a given. It’s a big football club, so to go on and finish second is what we want to do.
“No-one has ridden over the top of us recently – the only team that kind of battered us was Dundee United on the first day of the season. Since then, every game has been tight, but every team is the same. It’s a tight league and every team can beat each other.”
Having once boasted the best home record in the top flight, Hibs have lost their last three league matches at Easter Road, the latest disappointment being the Boxing Day defeat by Ross County. But McPake insisted he and his team-mates quickly put that setback behind them as the began to prepare for today’s clash and Thursday’s derby at Tynecastle.
He said: “After the game, we were disappointed. It was a game we felt we had to get three points, a game in which we were capable of getting the three points and a game I felt we were the better team.
“Unfortunately we came away with nothing – a hard one to take – but we are lucky in a way that over this period the games are coming thick and fast and we have a chance to move on.
“We have two of our biggest games of the season coming up and we have a lot to look forward to. I know it is disappointing for everyone, but we are still better off than we have been in the past couple of seasons, so we have to remember that, but we have to get back to winning ways and start picking up points again.”
McPake agreed, though, that Hibs need to quickly regain their home form: “We have to try to get the consistency back, especially at home where, for a while, we were good and never even looked like being beaten. That’s changed, so we have to look to get back to where we were at the start of the season.
“That was the backbone of where we were, our home form. We had transformed it from last season, but we have been slipping up recently. We have been quite lucky with results. We are still sitting fourth, but we need to start putting wins on the board.
“I don’t think there’s cause for concern. Against Ross County we were disappointing. This season our strength has been our attacking play, but against them we weren’t as good as we have been.
“The Motherwell game we were 2-0 up and cruising and down at Kilmarnock we were the better team; we are playing quite well. When we stop playing well and are being beaten that’s when we will be concerned, but we are still there, still in about it we just have to start putting wins back on the board and I am sure we will.”
Having dropped a number of unexpected points, including a 2-2 draw with Hibs in the east end of Glasgow earlier in the season, Celtic are now beginning to haul themselves away from the rest of the pack. But, McPake insisted, he was never in any doubt they’d take the title once again.
He said: “Celtic are the best team in the country by a mile and they have proved that. They are in the last 16 in the best competition in the world, the hardest competition. I’ve watched all their games in the Champions League on television, they have been great and done Scottish football proud getting that far in the competition.
“When you play teams like that you have to be at your best. Every player needs to be pulling in the right direction and you have to hope they have an off-day. You have to be lucky as you do in any game, but I think coming here there’s going to be a big crowd we will have a big crowd, they will have a big crowd and hopefully it’s going to be a good game.
“Again, it’s not a game we are going to fear. We are all looking forward to it. If you don’t like playing in those games then you should not be playing football. It’s a game we are looking forward to and it’s a game in which we are going to have a go.
“They have hit a bit of form, were perhaps not winning games as they should have been, but they are now steamrollering teams. That’s what you get with the players they have got and we have to stand up to that and make sure on the day we are playing against 11 men not 11 football strips.
“The game at Celtic Park was great, but it was only a point. I’d rather they take that point off us and we beat Ross County. We got a lot of belief from going there and putting in a performance, but the next game especially we have to go out and put on a performance.
“Celtic will win the title without a doubt. Last time we played them I knew they would win the league. I don’t think that’s been lack of ambition; it’s just common sense – everyone knows that. Other teams have been taking points off them, so we could be doing with taking points off them for our own good; not for trying to stop Celtic winning the league, but for trying to finish second.”
McPake insisted he was now over the back problem which caused him to miss six matches: “It happened in training, a nothing tackle. I got up and my back had seized up. I thought I’d miss one game, but unfortunately it didn’t work like that. I’m OK now.”