Three huge games in ten days to bring best out of Hibs
Neil Lennon hasn't been slow to accuse his Hibs side of possessing a 'Jekyll and Hyde' character, a team capable of rising to the most testing of challenges and yet guilty of displaying an unfathomable frailty when least expected.
Beating Rangers at Ibrox only to crash 3-1 at home to Hamilton, being 2-0 up against Motherwell at Easter Road only to fall apart and be left hanging on for a draw are two prime examples of why Lennon can be left exasperated.
Now, though, the Capital outfit face three games in ten days in which they’ll have to be more Jekyll than Hyde, the visit of Aberdeen – joint top of the Premiership table with Celtic – on Saturday followed by a Betfred Cup semi-final against the Scottish champions the following weekend and then, little more than 72 hours later, the first Edinburgh derby of the season.
It will be Hibs’ toughest period of the season so far – although in December they face Celtic, Rangers and Aberdeen in the space of only six days – however, former Hibs striker Steve Cowan insists it’s a programme which ought to bring out the best in Lennon’s players.
Cowan was at Celtic Park to see his old club come within minutes of smashing the 16-month unbeaten domestic record of Brendan Rodgers’ side and, as a match analyst for Radio Forth, he’s seen most of Hibs’ matches.
He said: “Of course, these are three massive games coming up but I am sure Neil and the players will be looking forward to each of them. These are the matches you want to be playing in, the reason why Hibs wanted out of the Championship. Each game is going to present its own problems and Neil will be trying to devise a solution for each. As players, this period will take care of itself. For them, it will mean less time on the training ground going through monotonous exercises.
“It will be a case of preparing for each, working on the game plan, hoping to get the right result and then recover and get ready for the next one and so on.
“The games will take their toll, both mentally and physicallly, but Neil will be looking at the 17 or 18 players in his squad and be telling them he’ll probably be calling on everyone. Obviously, he will hope they don’t pick up any injuries along the way but every player has to be at their peak in training, focused and ready if called upon.”
Although the perception has been that Aberdeen, another of Cowan’s former clubs, have endured an indifferent start to the season, he pointed to the fact they are level with Celtic on points and unbeaten as suggesting the total opposite.
He said: “People talk about Derek McInnes not knowing his best team or formation. I would disagree. When you look at where they are sitting, he must have a fair idea.
“The one thing about Aberdeen is that they won’t sit back, they’ll come at you and that will allow Hibs to play. Guys like John McGinn and Anthony Stokes will be able to find wee pockets between the lines.”
Cowan, though, does have one reservation regarding Hibs, the number of goals they have conceded.
He said: “They lost two against Celtic and, although I felt they should have won the game with the intensity with which they playe – the way they harried Celtic all over the pitch was great – they could have lost more.
“They also conceded two to Rangers even although they won, two against Motherwell and those three to Hamilton. The goals-against column doesn’t look pretty. You can only rely on your strikers to bail you out for so long.
“I remember Gordon Durie and myself scoring a lot of goals but the team conceded a lot as well. Eventually, it catches up with you.”
Adam Rooney, scorer of a hat-trick as the Dons defeated St Johnstone at the end of last month, is an obvious threat this Saturday as is Stevie May while a week later Lennon’s side will again look to fetter the likes of James Forrest, Scott Sinclair and Leigh Griffiths at Hampden.
Lennon admitted in the wake of the draw in Glasgow he felt Celtic’s midweek Champions League trip to face Anderlecht in Brussels would have taken some toll on Rodgers’ players, who next week travel to play Bayern Munich in a crunch match before meeting Hibs in the semi-final of the Betfred Cup.
Cowan, though, dismissed the notion that it will interfere with Celtic’s preparations for Hampden, saying: “I’d imagine every one of their players will want to play in that one. They are on a fantastic run, nearly 60 games unbeaten in domestic games. They won the treble last season and they’ll want to defend the first of those trophies. Barring injuries, I’d expect Brendan to play the best 11 possible so I wouldn’t anticipate an easier game at all.
“However, to me cup runs are great, but league points are more important. If Hibs have ambitions to be in the top four they have to beat the Aberdeens and Hearts, who are contenders for that sort of finish.”