HIBERNIAN are hoping that Dundee United’s off-field issues will leave the Tannadice side vulnerable when the pair meet up at Easter Road this evening with a place in the semi-finals of the League Cup on offer.
Mark Wilson and Paul Paton were omitted from the squad when Jackie McNamara’s men travelled to Inverness on Saturday following an alleged assault on Celtic goalkeeper Lukasz Zaluska but despite the latter being arrested in connection with the incident both men will be available for selection tonight.
Hibs manager Alan Stubbs says it could lead to the visitors circling the wagons as the players rally round the under-fire midfielder but he believes it could just as easily prove the kind of distraction Hibs will be only too happy to take advantage of.
The problem, he says, is that no-one knows how it will affect United until the play gets underway. “I think you’ll only be able to answer that question after the 90 or 120 minutes, whatever it’s going to be. It can go both ways, to be honest. It can galvanise teams and it can have a negative effect. Only time is going to tell.”
But regardless of the impact, Stubbs does expect it to be the toughest match of Hibs’ season.
Despite racking up a run of six matches without defeat, suggesting that the Easter Road side are beginning to turn their form around, the fact is they remain well adrift in the Championship title race. Struggling to get the better of many in the second tier of the Scottish game, Stubbs knows that masterminding a victory over one of the best sides in the top flight will be tricky, even although he sees little to separate many of the teams in the Championship and the Premiership.
“With the teams at the top of the [Championship] table I don’t think there’s a lot of difference. Rangers are obviously still a big club, Hearts the same, and ourselves. I think whenever we play in the cup competitions this season there wouldn’t necessarily be a big difference.
“We’ve seen Celtic play Hearts and that would have been seen as a bit of a one-sided result. But Celtic can do that to the best of teams and, apart from the likes of Celtic, I don’t think there’s much between the rest of the clubs.
“We’re six games unbeaten, which leads us into the Dundee United game. It’s going to be a good game of football, with two teams that want to play. It’s going to be a tough game, they’ve got some good players, who are technically gifted. In fact, they’ve got a bit of everything – they’ve got a bit of pace, a bit of power, a bit of cleverness, intelligence, so we know we’re going to be in for a tough game.”
But he believes that his side will have given his counterpart, McNamara, plenty to think about with a derby performance he says should and could have reaped more than a draw. “I think Jackie will have gone away thinking that they’re going to be in for a tough game as well.”
A side bruised by a derby life of hard knocks, it would be understandable if losing a last-gasp goal in Sunday’s capital clash had dented the confidence or belief, but Stubbs insists the level of performance in that game means the opposite is true. “I’m over Sunday, I really am. I can’t do anything about it. I have told the players they have a great opportunity to book themselves a place at Hampden. It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be our hardest game of the season, there’s no shadow of a doubt about that. But we are up for it. Sunday has given us a lot of confidence again and we are making steps in the right direction and we have the makings of a not bad team.
“I think this game will be open. You’ve got two teams who want to play an open, expansive brand of football, and when that happens it usually leads to chances in the game. We’re certainly not going to be camping in against Jackie and Dundee United. I think he knows that and I don’t think they’re going to be camping in either. That’s got the makings of a game where it should be a good spectacle for football.”
There has been a degree of consistency throughout the Hibs squad in recent weeks but midfielders Dylan McGeouch and Scott Allan have been credited with the greater creativity in the middle of the park. Having been sent off against Ross County in the previous round, the on-loan Celtic player will be an absentee tonight, placing even greater onus on the 22-year-old who left United for West Bromwich Albion in 2012. But his manager says that he has the ability to prove pivotal.
“Over the last couple of weeks there has been a real turning point for Scott. When you have a talent like he has, the hardest thing is to show it week in week out.
“There’s a pressure on the individual to always show something different and that shouldn’t be the case. It’s about working with him rather than against him and showing where he is going wrong and why he is going wrong and helping him get better and achieve what he can achieve.
“I think when you do that then straight away you have a player’s attention because they know you are doing something in their best interests rather than anything else.”