TEAM selection, head-to-heads and tactics go through a football manager’s head every week but never are these more important than on Cup final day and both Pat Fenlon and Neil Lennon have a number of huge decisions to make.
Fenlon must decide whether to continue with his new-found belief in attacking football or revert to type and go defensive. In my view, he has got to strike the right balance – attack but not go completely gung-ho. He must also instill in his players the belief that they cannot just sit back and take wave after wave of Celtic attacks, as this will inevitably lead to one thing – Scott Brown walking up the Hampden steps to pick up the famous trophy.
Top managers earn their corn by getting the specific little details about tactics right and not just talking about the game in one big generalisation.
One specific route that Hibs must look to take is exploiting Celtic’s weakness, their defence. The player who could hold the key to unlocking the Bhoys’ backline is teenager Alex Harris. Whoever comes out on top of his potential head-to-head with Emilio Izaguirre could well sway the game. Harris has shown he has the ability and football brain to trouble the Honduran full-back. During his first-half demolition of Hearts’ Kevin McHattie in the recent derby, Harris attacked at pace and delivered a number of wicked crosses into the box. On occasions, he also looked to step inside and link up with his striker to play one-twos, thus showing he is not merely a one-trick pony.
Now, for all the plaudits that Izaguirre has received over his years at Parkhead, not many have been for his defensive positioning and qualities. This is an aspect of the game that Fenlon has got to use to his team’s advantage.
My concern for Hibs is that last year’s cup final was such a tactical disaster for Fenlon that it makes me wonder if he has the ability to see the fine details which could make the difference. He set his team up that day with a narrow diamond midfield which played to Hearts’ strengths in the wide areas, where they had a field day with a free run at the Hibs full-backs. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the midfield sat off Hearts and allowed them to dictate the game from the middle of the park. Finally, and possibly most crucially, nobody was designated to mark Rudi Skacel who played in the hole where you would have expected the Hibs midfield to be. The result? He scored twice as Hearts won 5-1.
Another intriguing sub-plot in today’s final is the clash between self-proclaimed best pals Brown and Kevin Thomson.
These guys know each other inside out, their careers have followed a similar paths and they’ve also had their fair share of injuries. Having played with both, I have seen them at close quarters. Brown’s obvious strength is his phenomenal energy. That aspect of his game has made him the leader in the Celtic changing room. He certainly leads by example and gets those around him to lift their games, which could be vital today.
Thomson, on the other hand, is a more studious type who doesn’t have the same capacity to get around and physically dominate games. But, when he’s in a team who are controlling the game, he can help to keep possession better than Brown. He has a lovely left foot and shields the ball in tight areas of the pitch particularly well. My concern, though, is that, in this Hibs team, he might not be able to bring his strengths to the fore and that Brown’s energy may well win the day.
From a Celtic point of view, Neil Lennon is under scrutiny as he tries to secure the double for the club for the first time since 2007 and cure his side of the Hampden sickness that has seen them fail five times at the national stadium in his tenure as manager.
I sometimes look at the Old Firm and wonder whether it’s great management that wins them certain games and trophies or the simple fact that they’ve got better players.
Lennon has had some obvious successes against the odds, which would lead you to believe that he has the management game down to a fine art. But these have invariably been quickly followed by a tumble.
During Celtic’s recent draw away at Ross County, I watched as the Staggies were allowed to dominate the midfield unopposed at the same time as their Greek left back Evangelos Ikonomou marauded up the flank, putting in crosses with little resistance. I was sure Celtic would do something to combat this, but nothing was done until the 81st minute.
Lennon will have to come up with a gameplan that will deliver silverware or he’ll continue to be plagued by doubts about his team’s ability to close out big games at Hampden.