Craig Fowler looks at the argument for and against assuming Rangers are champions at this early stage.
Yes it is
Through 25 games, Rangers have dropped points in only five matches. They would, essentially, need to do so in a further four games over the last nine to lose this title. In other seasons, against other sides, you’d say Hibs more than had a fair chance of getting back into it if they hit a great run of form. But there’s an easy to imagine scenario where Hibs win every single one of their final league games and still don’t win the title.
Even Hibs defender Liam Fontaine has admitted that the Easter Road side will need a 100 per cent record to have a chance. Earning such a streak under normal circumstances would be tough enough, but as they are still battling in both the Scottish and League Cups, it’s going to be doubly difficult for Hibs. They will be going through a backlog of fixtures in April, tiring out the players and enabling mistakes to occur with greater frequency.
Basic errors that cost goals are a bigger threat to Hibs than they are to Rangers. Throughout the season, the league leaders have blown sides away with greater regularity. Mark Warburton’s men have amassed nine victories of three or more goals, while Hibs have only done so on four occasions. This is telling in the +29 goal difference advantage Rangers hold over their closest rivals.
The main reason for not backing Hibs is simple: Rangers look, and have always looked, the stronger team. This opinion is supported by the 3-1 lead they hold in head-to-head matches against Hibs in all competitions this season. There may be more quality in depth at East Mains, but only 11 players can start at a time, and Rangers have the stronger first choice unit.
Not is isn’t
While Rangers have looked the better side, the actual top team in any league is decided at the end of the campaign and we’re not there yet. A lot of Rangers’ more impressive performances came earlier in the season while other teams were still adjusting to Warburton’s expansive, attacking and patient passing style. By the same token, Hibs began the season dreadfully as they were still adapting to the Scott Allan distraction, eventually selling the midfielder and having to readjust the team on the fly.
It’s true that Hibs have stuttered in the league recently, but then Rangers had a similar run in the build-up to Christmas and their performances in the last two league games, against Queen of the South and Alloa, retain the plausibility of another such downturn. Even Warburton called the Queens victory the worst Rangers performance of the season. It could shake the league leaders into a reaction, or it could herald further struggles.
One reason for the poor performance at Palmerston, and other edgy encounters Rangers have navigated past in recent weeks, is the lack of goals. It seemed they’d got their mojo back when, starting with the Ibrox victory over Hibs, they reeled off four straight games scoring four or more goals. There has since been a period of seven games when they’ve failed to score three times in a single match.
The injury to Martyn Waghorn is a big concern. He could miss the remainder of the campaign. Kenny Miller is an adequate replacement, though there remain question marks over Nicky Clark, who’ll see more match time as a result of Waghorn’s absence. Rangers have the same backlog of fixtures that Hibs have, but they’re doing it with a smaller squad.
Hibs have got a couple of tricky trips to Queen of the South and Raith Rovers coming up in their next three games, but if they can get through those unscathed then they’ll have a strength of schedule advantage over Rangers who still have to travel to both Easter Road and the Falkirk Stadium, the only two grounds where Warburton’s side have tasted defeat this season.
Stubbs and his players came back from an eight-point advantage earlier in the season and they deserve the benefit of the doubt that they can, at least, claw back some of that and take the title race down to the final two weeks.
Title race still on (but Rangers will emerge victorious)
THE SCOTSMAN ON SOCIAL MEDIA