Ofir Marciano: We must beat Hearts to stay in race for second
It's a debate which is certain to rage throughout tonight's match between Aberdeen and Rangers as Neil Lennon's players watch, from the comfort of their hotel, their rivals for second place in action.
Which result would be of the biggest benefit to Hibs? Would it be a win for Aberdeen, three points ahead but with a marginally better goal difference and a visit to champions Celtic on the final day of the season?
Or a victory for Rangers, slightly closer in terms of points but nine goals to the good and due at Easter Road on Sunday.
Perhaps even a draw, which would leave the Capital outfit that little bit further adrift but still within striking distance with both left with only one game to play as opposed to Hibs’ two.
As Ofir Marciano agreed, there’s plenty of permutations and fodder for argument but, as the goalkeeper pointed out, it will all be rendered totally irrelevant if he and his team-mates don’t produce the goods in Wednesday night’s derby against Hearts at Tynecastle and again at the weekend when caretaker boss Jimmy Nicholl brings the Ibrox club to town.
The Israeli internationalist said: “There are so many outcomes possible, three teams, two games to go and each of us could finish second, third or fourth.
“We’ll be in our hotel tonight ahead of the derby but I’m sure we’ll all be watching, some of us might get together to do so and others might choose to watch in their rooms.
“I’m sure we will be in for a good game but however it finishes we know that we can only control what is in our hands, the rest can take care of itself.
“But I think we are at the point where if you’d told us at the start of the season that with two games to go we’d be in which a chance of finishing second, we’d have taken that with both hands.”
Hibs have been in what Lennon has described as “championship winning form” since the turn of the year, 12 games unbeaten, just one defeat in 17 outings – and that a narrow 1-0 loss away to champions Celtic.
It’s bred a confidence which has seen them take seven out of nine points from their first three-post split fixtures, so much so that the weekend’s goalless draw against Aberdeen at a ground where they suffered a hammering in December was viewed with a touch of disappointment.
“It’s been amazing,” said Marciano, “I don’t think many would have imagined we’d have taken so many points from those games with Celtic, Kilmarnock and now Aberdeen.
“Going to Pittodrie, keeping a clean sheet and coming away with a point is a good result but we felt we could have had all three.
“There’s been a big change since the last time we were there, you can see we are thriving as a team, we are maturing and playing with more confidence. That’s down to the players, the staff and even the supporters, it’s very important to us.”
That Hibs didn’t take all three points from Aberdeen was down to Jamie Maclaren’s poorly struck first-half penalty which was saved by Dons’ goalkeeper Joe Lewis but, insisted Marciano, there would be no worries about the Aussie striker stepping up should they be awarded a spot-kick in either of their final two games.
Maclaren has the huge incentive of being part of the Socceroos’ squad for this summer’s World Cup finals in Russia and, having been named in coach Bert van Marwijk’s provisional 32-man squad, one which will be trimmed by six next week, Marciano is backing the 24-year-old to keep his place.
He said: “Of course Jamie was disappointed to see his penalty saved but bigger players than him have missed from the spot and you can’t blame anyone who steps up to take one. Jamie told me it was the first time he had missed one since he started playing professional football so it was a terrible time to do so but the first goal he scored for us was a penalty against Rangers at Ibrox.
“If we should get a penalty either tomorrow night or on Sunday and Jamie feels he is ready to take it, then why not?
“Jamie has been a great addition to our squad since he came here, just look at the results we’ve enjoyed. He’s a great guy who works hard on the pitch and he has been so important for us in our structure. He’s given us a lot since he arrived.
“It’s a privilege to have players like him in our team who work hard and help us get the results.
“Going to the World Cup finals is a big incentive for him. He said when he came here it was to better his chances of being picked. Every player wants to play in the World Cup, it’s an amazing experience for anyone who does and I think he will be in the squad because he’s had a great half-season for us.”
Maclaren has scored five times for Hibs and Marciano agreed a couple more in the next few days would only boost his chances, revealing the knowledge that he’s already scored against both Hearts and Rangers will undoubtedly play a part in his team-mate’s thinking.
But while the Hibs fans will be looking to both Maclaren and Swiss hitman Flo Kamberi over the course of the next few days, Marciano knows he and the defenders in front of him will have an equal part to play in that final drive for second place.
Efe Ambrose, Darren McGregor and Paul Hanlon were all lauded by Lennon for their performances at Pittodrie, the trio leaving their goalkeeper with little to do despite the Dons’ aerial threat from set-pieces while Steven Whittaker, asked to play in central midfield, was also mentioned in dispatches.
Marciano said: “I think over the course of the season we have built a good chemistry between us, we’ve all worked really hard together to try to keep as many clean sheets as we can. You could see how strong the boys were against Aberdeen while Whitty was fantastic in the middle of the park, he covered everything and was really important for us defensively.”
While Hibs go into the final derby of the season full of confidence, arch-rivals Hearts do so on the back of three successive defeats since the split, leaving Craig Levein’s team trailing their city neighbours by a mammoth 20 points.
But Marciano dismissed the suggestion that the Jam Tarts might try that little bit harder tomorrow night, knowing that while they can’t better their current sixth place, they could wreck Hibs’ hopes of finishing second.
He said: “It’s a derby, it means a lot to us, our fans and the club. It never matters what is at stake, they are always tough matches to play in.”