Winter is coming ... and Hibs need morale-boosting win
When Hibs last travelled to Aberdeen, the two teams were in the thick of the battle for second place in the Premiership.
That early-May encounter at Pittodrie finished goalless after Jamie Maclaren missed an early penalty for the visitors, but Neil Lennon’s fourth-place side remained within three points of the second-place Dons, with Rangers sandwiched in between.
Few would have predicted then that six months down the line the two sides would be preparing to reconvene in a mid-table clash which will finish with one of them in the bottom six.
As things stand, Aberdeen are currently there, placed in seventh, behind sixth-place Hibs on goal difference. If the Easter Road side lose in the Granite City, they will break for the November internationals in the bottom half of the table for the first time since returning to the top flight in summer 2017.
While it remains relatively early days in the campaign, it is worth noting that the top four on this day last year consisted of Celtic, Aberdeen, Hibs and Rangers, in that order. The only change to that sequence by the time the season concluded some six months later was that the Ibrox side had climbed above their Easter Road rivals to claim third place. That does not necessarily mean, of course, that the European places this year will be occupied by the current top four of Hearts, Celtic, Rangers and Kilmarnock. However, with most teams having faced each other already, we are clearly now far enough into the campaign for the standings to be deemed of some relevance in the analysis of the respective teams’ prospects.
While the league table doesn’t make great viewing at present for supporters of either Hibs or Aberdeen, encouragement for both can be found in the fact that the top eight in the Premiership are currently far more bunched up than was the case last year. At this point a year ago, 16 points separated leaders Celtic from eighth-place Ross County, while ten points separated third-place Hibs from sixth-place Hearts. As things stand, there are only eight points between first-place Hearts and eighth-place Livingston. A win for either Aberdeen or Hibs on Friday would take them, temporarily at least, level on points with both Rangers (third) and Kilmarnock (fourth). In short, the unusually-congested nature of the top end of the Premiership table has perhaps served to make things look bleaker for these two teams than they actually are, with smaller clubs like Killie, St Johnstone and Livingston all wading into the fight with the big five city clubs for the league’s most prominent positions.
In addition to the fact Hearts have improved significantly this season and Kilmarnock have picked up where they left off last term, Hibs and Aberdeen haven’t been helped by the loss of key men over the summer and the notion that they have been in transition in the early months of the campaign.
Playmaker Kenny McLean was a particularly big loss to the Dons, and it is only over the past month or so that they have started to discover some consistency, winning three of their last four league games while also booking a place in the Betfred Cup final with a hard-fought semi-final victory over Rangers. On the back of three consecutive wins in all competitions, and with four of their players buoyed by having just been named in the Scotland squad, this is probably not the best time for Hibs, without a win in three themselves, to be heading to Pittodrie.
After having to replace the heartbeat of their team following the summer departures of Scott Allan, Dylan McGeouch and John McGinn, while simultaneously being plagued by injuries to key men like Paul Hanlon, Darren McGregor and Jamie Maclaren, it came as no surprise that Hibs were unable to hit the ground running this season.
Following a disappointing return of five points from the first four games of the season, however, Lennon’s new-look team appeared to have turned a corner when they embarked on a four-game winning streak in the league while also producing a rousing display against the Dons in a thrilling Betfred Cup quarter-final at Easter Road which they lost on penalties. Momentum has been halted in recent weeks, however, with just one point collected from matches against three of the division’s on-song teams.
If Hibs had followed up their 4-2 defeat at Celtic Park – which featured an impressive second-half display – and their goalless draw at Tynecastle, which was achieved while playing with ten men for the last quarter – by beating St Johnstone at home last weekend, the situation would have looked significantly rosier. The unexpected defeat by the Perth side, and particularly the nature of it, however, has had a deflating effect on a support who had plenty reason just a few weeks back to believe that their team were equipped to mount another strong challenge at the top end of the table.
The points situation (just three off third place) means there is still a good chance of that scenario coming to fruition, but the pre-winter-break fixture list doesn’t make for pleasant reading. Following Friday’s trip to a venue where they haven’t won in their last five visits, Hibs face nine games in 35 days after the international break, a run of fixtures Lennon has already expressed concern about.
As they seek a winter foothold in the top end of the division, this would be a good time for Hibs to notch their first victory in Aberdeen since Sean O’Hanlon headed in a Leigh Griffiths corner to secure a 2-1 win in May 2012.