Call a gut feeling if you will, but there seems a high possibility this final will be decided on a goalkeeper error. Both stoppers have interesting narrative arcs. Gary Woods is the understudy thrust into the spotlight after an injury to County’s leading custodian Scott Fox, who incidentally has been outstanding this season. He’s either going to rise to the occasion and turn in a memorable performance or he’s going to produce an act of self-sabotage like Natalie Portman’s character at the end of Black Swan. At the other end, Mark Oxley’s position as Hibs goalkeeper has never been as tenuous as it is now. He’s made a number of mistakes in recent weeks and it’s confirmed a cynical view many supporters had of him all along. Similar to his opposite number, he’ll either drop one in or produce a man of the match performance to justify Alan Stubbs’ unwavering faith.
Jason Cummings and Anthony Stokes are likely to be the starting duo. They have not looked good as a front pairing, and Stubbs probably knows this, but they’re the obvious pick as they’re the two most talented forwards Hibs have. Had Farid El Alagui played more this season, or if James Keatings hadn’t just ended a 16-game streak without scoring, or if Chris Dagnall looked like any sort of goal threat, then Stubbs may have been tempted to throw a curveball with regards to his leading men. However, it’s likely these two will play and if they do then one of them shall have to sacrifice himself for the good of the team. This means doing a lot of the donkey work so the other can thrive. It remains to be seen whether either has the maturity or the ego to allow this to happen.
ROSS COUNTY’S TACTICS AND PERSONNEL
Injuries restrict what Hibs can do. Keatings may start and Niklas Gunnarsson is in contention if Stubbs wants to go with a back three, but other than that their starting XI is set. For County, there are possible variations all over the park, and that includes their formation. They could go 4-1-4-1 or 4-2-3-1, match up Hibs with a narrow diamond of their own, or go with their tried and trusted 4-4-2. The latter makes sense as the strength of the system revolves around getting the ball out wide and putting crosses into the box. As Peter Houston has rightly pointed out in the past, Hibs can be hurt through this approach.
ROSS COUNTY’S DEFENCE
The main reason they won’t go with their tried and tested method of playing is the defence. Their goals conceded record has been dreadful since the turn of the year. Among their crimes are two goals conceded to League One Dunfermline and non-league Linlithgow Rose in the cup, three goals shipped at home to Aberdeen despite playing the majority of the match against 10 men and, worst of all, letting Dundee United score six goals in two games at Dingwall. As a result of all this, Jim McIntyre may feel forced into playing either 4-1-4-1 or 4-2-3-1 to give his defence extra protection. In Andrew Davies and Paul Quinn they have two good centre backs, so there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to form something strong and cohesive.