Benjelloun: Just don't look down

HIBS star Abdessalam Benjelloun today admitted that while he and his team-mates are totally focused on trying to overhaul Dundee United, they are also casting an anxious glance over their shoulders at Motherwell as the race for Europe hits the final straight.

The Tannadice outfit installed themselves as firm favourites to take third place with a 4-2 victory over Hibs, one which has fired them five points ahead of John Hughes' players with just seven SPL matches remaining.

But a revitalised Motherwell side now sit a mere two points behind Hibs who in fourth occupy the last remaining spot to guarantee a place in next season's Europa League although fifth might be enough should United and Celtic meet in the final of the Active Nation Scottish Cup.

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However, Moroccan striker Benji today insisted Hughes' players are determined not only to hold onto what they have got but to do their utmost to rein back United.

Conceding that will be a tough task, he said: "Dundee United have hit top form and are playing with confidence so it will be hard for us to be third.

"But we have to keep fighting, we'll have one more match against them after the split so there is still a chance for us. If not then we have to make sure we finish fourth so it is a case of looking both forward and behind us with Motherwell just two points away."

Having once been apparently guaranteed a third place finish, Benji admitted it would be a bitter disappointment to have to cede that position to United come the end of the season, Hughes' players having suffered an alarming slump in recent weeks.

Just nine points out of a possible 27 have been taken which, coupled with a shock Scottish Cup exit at the hands of First Division Ross County, has filled Hibs supporters full of doom and gloom as a highly promising season has turned sour.

Even so, Benji argued, he and his team-mates cannot allow the last few weeks of the campaign to simply drift to a conclusion.

He said: "Obviously United have the greater chance as they are five points clear of us and seven ahead of Motherwell but we are all going to have to play Rangers, Celtic and each other again so perhaps they'll drop enough points for us to catch them."

Hibs, of course, will actually have two games against Celtic, tomorrow's encounter at Easter Road, one which Benji claimed was just as important to the Hoops as they chase their own faint dream of reining in Old Firm rivals Rangers, ten points ahead in the charge for the title and with a game in hand.

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However, Benji believes that, like Hibs, Celtic will also be casting a nervous eye over their shoulders with United now only five points behind and beginning to believe they could even split the Glasgow pair.

And that, he insisted, could help make tomorrow's clash an exciting affair with two sides intent on taking all three points knowing anything less won't help their respective causes.

Admitting, given Hibs current plight, he'd rather be "playing another team" at this moment, Benji said: "It's not going to be easy with Celtic coming here with a new manager (Neil Lennon] but we have done well against them in recent seasons and won against them in Glasgow only a few weeks ago.

"I don't think it will be a draw tomorrow, one team will win the game. I think it will be an open match, Celtic like to play football as we do. Both teams need three points, especially us.

"But Celtic also have Dundee United just five points behind the while they are also trying to catch Rangers although, at this moment, it seems as if the championship has gone for them."

Benji admitted that with just two wins in 11 matches, confidence was at a low ebb in the dressingroom, describing yesterday's training session as "quiet," an opinion countered by boss Hughes who insisted it had lively with 70 minutes of "real hard work" by his players.

Regardless, Benji insisted it was up to each individual to lift themselves for the coming matches in a bid to get Hibs season belatedly back on track.

He said: "We started the season very well but, in the last month or six weeks, we've played some games not so well. We haven't passed the ball quickly enough and haven't played as we did before.

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"However, we have to stay focused and fight, the team that does that will have a good chance."

Benji agreed with Hughes' assessment that perhaps Hibs were a bit soft, accepting his manager's demands that his side not only play football but be capable of handling the physical demands of the SPL and the mental pressure brought by competing at the top end of the table.

He said: "Since I have been at Hibs I've played under four managers who all wanted to play a different game. The manager wants us to play good football but also to fight for every ball, to win our challenges and headers.

"But I think if we had won against Dundee United the other night that question wouldn't be asked.

"The weather also hasn't helped us, all the rain and snow. The pitches haven't been perfect but that's not an excuse. All over the world there are pitches that aren't so good but teams still fight."

And Benji added the loss of countryman Merouane Zemmama for the rest of the season, the little playmaker, who has been dogged by injury for months, suffering cruciate ligament damage only 11 minutes into his comeback match against Falkirk, was yet another setback for Hibs.

Zemmama is expected to undergo an operation next week and Benji added: "It's very bad news, but that's football.

"Zouma has to keep his head up, it's very sad for him, everyone just wants him to be fit."