Hibees' chance to spring surprise
THE first weekend of the new SPL season provided us with several results that might have come as a bit of a surprise to the footballing public.
Just like last year, Falkirk began with an excellent away win to take them top of the table but I have a feeling they'll not be the only ones to give Gretna a thumping this season.
Rangers travelled to Inverness, normally a tough place to go and get three points, however Walter Smith's men have the look of a team made of sterner stuff than last term and they ran out comfortable winners under the influence of an inspired performance by Barry Ferguson, in particular.
Both Motherwell and Dundee United started off in great style by grinding out wins against St Mirren and Aberdeen respectively and, with Mark McGhee in charge at Fir Park and Craig Levein at Tannadice, I think both clubs are capable of punching above their weight this season.
Current SPL Champions, Celtic, looked to be lacking in inspiration against a well-organised Kilmarnock outfit at Parkhead yesterday and although Gordon Strachan didn't seem too concerned after the match, it was way below their level of performance in the corresponding fixture this time last year. Perhaps we may have a decent title race after all.
When the fixtures for the new season came out over a month ago the most eye-catching clash of the first weekend in Scotland was Hearts versus Hibs at Tynecastle.
Of the 60 live games covered by Setanta last season I thought the two best games to watch were the first two Edinburgh derbies in the league - the 2-2 draw at Easter Road and the 3-2 victory for Hearts at Tynecastle.
These games are always played at breakneck speed - the supporters wouldn't settle for anything less - and tonight's match is unlikely to be any different. Followers of Celtic and Rangers will always claim the Old Firm clash is the greatest derby in Britain, if not the world, but for entertainment value the Edinburgh derby is hard to beat.
The contrast in styles between Hibs and Hearts is obvious, but both are capable of getting the job done and football would become boring if every team played the same way.
Hearts came out on top three of the five times the teams clashed last season and their home record against Hibs in recent years has been very impressive indeed. That said, John Collins will take solace from the fact his team created plenty of chances in both games at Tynecastle, on Boxing Day last year and in May this year. Perhaps, a change of luck in front of goal could make all the difference.
It should also be mentioned two of Hibs' three goalkeepers - Zibi Malkowski and Andy McNeil - made monumental errors against Hearts last season so Hibs fans will be praying that new signing, Yves Ma-Kalamby, will provide the team with a steadying influence in goal.
John Collins has cleared the decks of a number of players he inherited from his predecessor, Tony Mowbray, but the likes of Simon Brown, Jamie McCluskey, Sam Morrow, Jay Shields and Stephen Glass were only bit-part players anyway and will not be sorely missed.
On the flip side of this, it may be a lot more difficult to replace Scott Brown, Steven Whittaker, Ivan Sproule, Chris Killen and Michael Stewart. Admittedly, Hibs were well compensated for three of them, but there must be a possibility the team takes a backward step this season in their absence.
Not surprisingly, the Jambos are strong favourites with the bookies to triumph tonight at Tynecastle, but I wonder if those odds are an accurate reflection of their chances given they will be without two of their most influential and consistent performers in Christophe Berra and Larry Kingston.
Hearts are a powerful team and they undoubtedly possess a physical advantage over their rivals, but often these games are settled by a piece of subtlety in the final third of the pitch and from what I've seen of Hearts in pre-season they don't have too many players with that in their locker.
If Hibs' young players can stand their ground and, perhaps just as importantly, if they can cope with one of the most intimidating atmospheres in the SPL, they will have never a better chance of winning in their rivals' back yard.
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Monday 20 May 2013
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