‘Hibs must win derby to keep title hopes alive’

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ALAN Stubbs has accepted that the Championship race could be all but over unless Hibernian win today’s Edinburgh derby at Tynecastle.

The Hibs boss said yesterday that his team face “a huge challenge” to catch the Championship leaders Hearts if they fail to win today, and that, even if Hibs win, overhauling a deficit that currently stands at 19 points would be “a big ask”. But he hopes that a first league defeat of the season will at least put pressure on Hearts and call into question the self-confidence that has helped them record 16 wins and two draws from their 18 games.

Alan Stubbs: Closing the gap. Picture: SNS

Alan Stubbs: Closing the gap. Picture: SNS

“The one thing they’ve got is belief because of the results they’ve had,” Stubbs, who has a loss and a draw from his two derbies to date, said yesterday. “It’s given them a huge amount of confidence to keep going.

“And even when they haven’t played well at certain times, that belief has given them the confidence to keep going. That’s one of the reasons they find themselves in the position they are in.

“I think it’s going to be very difficult if we lose the game and it goes to 22 points,” he continued when asked to assess the gap between the two capital clubs. “You’re looking at least at eight games to try and haul that back. That’s a huge ask for anyone.

“We’re not soft, but if we can get a win it’s still going to be a big ask. But at least it would be a big ask where we were three points closer to them.

“There’s no point running away from it: it’s a big gap and I’d like to be in that position. We’re not, but we’re going to keep going. You never know in football. First and foremost we’ll look to get a result and if we can get the three points, then we’ll be three points closer to them.”

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With both teams in fine form at present – Hearts are on a run of seven league wins, while Hibs have won their last three, including last Saturday’s 4-0 demolition of Rangers – Stubbs expects a far closer game than the points gulf between the teams might suggest. “Even though the gap is big, I don’t think there’s a great deal between the teams,” he said.

“Hearts deserve a lot of credit. They’ve had a fantastic start. They deserve to be where they are: it’s as simple as that.

“They have some very good players. Robbie [Neilson] has done a really good job with the lads. The hardest thing in football is to have that consistency and keep winning week in, week out. They’ve done that really well and we haven’t done that as well.

“That’s why we find ourselves with this points gap. It’s the same with Rangers and the other teams. But we will keep going.

“We probably had the most turmoil to deal with early in the season and because of that it had an effect. But over the last three months we’ve really started to come onto our game.

“And we approach this game in probably the best form we have been in during this period. So it has the makings of a really entertaining, good game of football where people, no matter the result, talk about it as a football spectacle rather than anything else.”

Hearts head coach Neilson believes that, in contrast to the frenzy which predominated in many previous derbies, both teams will try to play football today. “You’ve got to be disciplined in the way you approach the game,” he said. “We always want to try and pass the ball, and we’ll still try and do that. Hibs are trying to do that as well.

“It should be an entertaining game. The pressure can sometimes get to players and they worry about making mistakes, but it’s our job to try and take that away from them and make sure that there’s a freedom to go and pass the ball.”

Hibs were yesterday active in the transfer market, with winger Alex Harris moving on loan to Dundee for the rest of the season and Martin Boyle, also a winger, heading from Dens Park to Easter Road in a swap deal. It was unclear last night whether the deal will go through in time to allow Boyle to feature at Tynecastle.

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