Scottish Cup final: Hibs go in search of the holy grail

Rangers' James Tavernier and Hibs' John McGinn will lock horns at Hampden. Picture: Rob Casey/SNS

Rangers' James Tavernier and Hibs' John McGinn will lock horns at Hampden. Picture: Rob Casey/SNS

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Unlike the previous two years, which witnessed maiden triumphs for St Johnstone and Inverness Caledonian Thistle, there will be no new name inscribed on the oldest football trophy of them all at Hampden this afternoon.

But regardless of the outcome of the 131st Scottish Cup final, there will be a powerful sense of renewal nonetheless for the winners and their supporters.

In contrasting ways, set against vastly different timescales, this is an occasion laden with potentially pivotal significance for both Hibernian and Rangers.

In the Easter Road club’s case, it is the familiar but compelling narrative of their quest to lift the prestigious silverware for the first time since 1902.

In comparison, the Ibrox men’s last Scottish Cup success in 2009 is a mere blink of the eye ago. It is the traumatic events they have suffered since 2012, however, which would place such an emotionally-charged perspective on claiming the first major trophy since their financial meltdown.

There is no shortage of intrigue, then, surrounding the first Scottish Cup final to be contested by two teams outwith the top flight of league football. Rangers, of course, will be back in the Premiership next season after winning the Championship emphatically, while Hibs’ failure to negotiate the play-offs has consigned them to a third consecutive campaign of second tier football.

That may partly influence the bookmakers’ view of Mark Warburton’s team as odds-on favourites to win the cup, with Alan Stubbs’ side available at around 7-4.

Closer analysis of the build-up to the final, however, appears to offer a less clear-cut view of which team comes into it better prepared.

After securing their main priority of automatic promotion with something to spare, Rangers’ league form tailed off with two draws and two defeats – one of those away to Hibs – in their last four Championship fixtures.

They have not won a match in 90 minutes since defeating Peterhead 4-0 in the Petrofac Training Cup final at Hampden on 10 April, although their penalty shoot-out triumph against Celtic in the Scottish Cup semi-final the following week came on the back of one of their most impressive performances yet under Warburton.

It remains to be seen if they can suddenly rediscover that level of intensity following their indifferent end to the campaign and the subsequent three-week break from competitive action while they waited for today’s showpiece occasion.

Warburton, who prides himself on the meticulous preparation of his players, remains defiantly relaxed about the clear drop in their performance levels.

“Don’t forget the players came off a ten-day period in which they had won the league, won the Challenge Cup at Hampden and then beat Celtic there,” said Warburton.

“So maybe it was a natural, subconscious reaction to a really successful ten-day period. We will learn from it, hopefully, but we are not looking too much into it.

“That last game at Easter Road, we had a lot of the ball, a lot of chances and didn’t maximise it. So we will be in good shape on Saturday.”

While Stubbs would happily trade Hibs’ despair in the promotion play-offs for Rangers’ delight as Championship winners, he sees a possible advantage for his team today in terms of the greater match sharpness their ties against Raith Rovers and Falkirk have provided over the past fortnight.

Setting aside the Petrofac Training Cup first round tie at Easter Road on the opening day of the season, when Rangers eventually romped their way to a 6-2 win after Hibs had dominated much of the first half, the teams have been fairly evenly matched.

It was two wins apiece in the league, with home advantage counting every time and only Rangers’ 4-2 success at Ibrox in December saw victory achieved by more than a single goal margin.

Even in their respective paths to the final, there has been little to split them. Both have taken three Premiership scalps each, including those of their biggest rivals Hearts and Celtic.

Warburton’s success in his first year at Rangers has been achieved with a lean first-team squad, one which will be significantly tested again today.

Dominic Ball, so influential in the holding midfield role against Celtic in the semi-final, misses out through suspension to join the injured Harry Forrester and cup-tied pair of Billy King and Michael O’Halloran on the sidelines.

The return to action of top scorer Martyn Waghorn is a boost for Rangers, albeit without any certainty as to how effective he will be in such a high-profile game so soon after a lengthy injury absence.

For Stubbs, in what is his 100th game as Hibs manager, the team selection issues are more focused on who to leave out.

His choices up front are the most fascinating, with the possibility that Jason Cummings, a potential matchwinner on any given day, may have to settle for a place on the bench.

That would be a big decision, given his outstanding scoring record of eight goals in ten previous career appearances against Rangers.

As is so often the case, though, the midfield area may offer the most reliable indicator of where the battle is likely to be won.

Rangers have benefitted from the consistency and energy in that department of Andy Halliday and Jason Holt all season, while John McGinn and Liam Henderson can be the driving force and creative influence for a Hibs team at their best.

Warburton’s team merit their status as favourites on a day when the ancillary prize on offer is a place in the Europa League next season.

But, although both history and the bookies are against Hibs, it would hardly be the greatest shock of recent times if it is Sunshine On Leith rather than Penny Arcade which is blasting out of the Hampden PA system at full-time.

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