What we can expect from Hibs' trip to Rangers as Jack Ross chases landmark Ibrox win
There was a time not so long ago when the Hibs teams led by Alan Stubbs and latterly Neil Lennon could travel to Ibrox brimming with confidence.
Stubbs won twice at Ibrox, as well as masterminding the Scottish Cup final success in 2016 and four wins at Easter Road. Lennon only lost once to Rangers during his tenure – a 2-1 home defeat in December 2017 – and enjoyed two wins and one draw at Ibrox as well as two draws in Leith including that bonkers 5-5 end-of-season game.
Current Hibs head coach Jack Ross is still waiting for a first win against Rangers, let alone a maiden victory at Ibrox. Could Sunday be the match when everything falls into place at long last?
Ross has chosen his words carefully when talking about previous encounters against Rangers during his tenure. Narrow defeats have been “competitive” while last season’s 2-2 draw at Easter Road was a “good result” – a fair comment given the Light Blues’ eventual title win and unbeaten run.
But it is perhaps fair to say that Sunday’s meeting at Ibrox has taken on a new significance. While the 2020/21 campaign could be described as broadly successful for Hibs – semi-finals of one cup competition, final of the other, and a first third-place finish in 16 years – there was a nagging feeling that the squad was capable of more.
This season they have a great chance to finally put to bed any doubts about their mentality in big games. Last weekend’s hard-fought victory against St Johnstone was the first sign that perhaps Hibs have turned a corner.
Yes, the penalty that led to the winning goal was contentious. But the psychological impact of finally beating St Johnstone at Easter Road after eight winless games and on top of the Perthshire side's hold over the Capital club last season in all three domestic competitions might just have exorcised a few ghosts.
Hibs found a way to win - and that’s something they haven’t been the best at in recent seasons.
Hibs go into Sunday’s game having had a complete week to recover after their back-to-back victories against Dundee United in the Premier Sports Cup and the McDiarmid Park side at Easter Road. Rangers, on the other hand, will have played a Europa League game in the Czech Republic against Sparta Prague.
The idea of a “European hangover” is a persistent one. The Gers drew their last league game after a European loss and before that, recorded a narrow win after a continental draw. Prior to that they won in Europe and then won on the Sunday. In short, it doesn’t really seem to matter if a club has played in Europe in mid-week.
But do Hibs stand a better chance of getting a result from Ibrox this season compared to last? The Capital club look better equipped this term than they did last year while Rangers, so far, haven't quite clicked into the gear that last season saw them swat aside virtually every opponent with relative ease.
If Hibs play to the best they can in G51 then they should have a chance of recording a favourable scoreline. A lot depends on which Rangers turns up while Steven Gerrard has a bit of a defensive conundrum on his hands too.
An away win in Govan would not be a particularly big shock on Sunday. Hibs are in good form, unbeaten so far this season in domestic matches, and are playing with confidence. But Rangers will be backed by a vocal crowd, on home turf, and Gerrard will be eager for his side to hit some sort of rhythm and perhaps put a bit of distance between themselves and Hibs and Hearts at the summit of the Premiership.
Options and dilemmas
Jack Ross has injury doubts ahead of the trip to Glasgow but he also has options, despite a handful of first-team stars still unavailable. Josh Doig and Kyle Magennis are both doubts but Martin Boyle and Kevin Nisbet along with Jake Doyle-Hayes are available after shaking off knocks or in Doyle-Hayes' case, illness.
Former Rangers winger Jamie Murphy also has a slim chance of featuring as he returns from a hamstring injury but regardless of his availability, there are options.
If Doig misses out, Lewis Stevenson can deputise and if Magennis is unavailable Alex Gogic or Jake Doyle-Hayes can come into the midfield.
Ross has options for the troublesome positions and can play the same system if required. The 4-2-3-1 has served Hibs well so far this campaign and the manager has seldom drifted from it, save for the Edinburgh derby at Tynecastle.
Consequences and outcomes
Should Hibs win on Sunday talk will continue of the club’s strong start to the season. There will likely be stage whispers about splitting the Old Firm from some pundits.
But mostly it will reaffirm the feeling that something good is being built at Hibs both on and off the pitch. Under the leadership of Ron Gordon and Ben Kensell there appears to be a drive to make the club as good as it can be.
Victory on Sunday would certainly go a long way to extending the positive mood in the stands at Easter Road and would also serve as a notice of the club’s intentions this season.
A draw of any sort would also be a positive result. Defeat could reignite grumblings from the terraces about big-game mentality and disrupt the team’s form.
Hibs have started the season strongly and when they haven’t won matches they generally haven't been too far away.
Sunday will be a big test for Hibs and Jack Ross. It remains to be seen how Rangers will be affected by their latest Europa League efforts but even with two or three players missing, the visitors should have enough to take something from the game.
If they do, it will tell us a lot about this Hibs team.