Hearts and Hibs take aim at Aberdeen with shoe firmly on the other foot - but hitting target easier said than done

Hibs will look to land their first points of the Premiership campaign against Aberdeen on Sunday.Hibs will look to land their first points of the Premiership campaign against Aberdeen on Sunday.
Hibs will look to land their first points of the Premiership campaign against Aberdeen on Sunday.
After a couple of pretty disappointing nights for Scottish football, Aberdeen discovered who they will face in their Europa Conference League group, but they will not have been the only interested parties as the draw was made.

Their Premiership rivals had a lot resting on the outcome as well. Managing to avoid the likes of Aston Villa, Club Brugge, Fenerbahce and Lille, the Pittodrie outfit were grouped with Eintracht Frankfurt, PAOK and HJK Helsinki and having been through the rigours of that competition last term, Hearts will be hoping that those opponents, allied to the extra travelling, will be good enough to sap them of some of their energy and resolve as they battle on domestic as well as foreign fronts.

Those dual commitments, aided by a troubling injury list, tested the Gorgie squad to the limit last season and led to some faltering form in a Premiership battle for third that raged into the dying days of the campaign. In the end, they came up short, with the Dons the team who were able to capitalise.

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That top three finish meant that while Hearts and Hibs had additional qualifying rounds to negotiate, and no European safety net when the going got too tough and PAOK and Aston Villa ended their respective interests in UEFA club competition, Aberdeen were always guaranteed an extended European run, even if their aggregate loss to BK Hacken means they miss out on the Europa League and switch focus to the Conference League instead. Their fate is now a heavily congested fixture list and the unrelenting highs and lows of pitting their wits against quality oppositions and juggling styles and personnel.

Hearts' technical director Steven Naismith (L) and head coach Frankie McAvoy.Hearts' technical director Steven Naismith (L) and head coach Frankie McAvoy.
Hearts' technical director Steven Naismith (L) and head coach Frankie McAvoy.

Hearts will remember how that felt and while they will mourn the missed opportunity to sample it again this term, they now have to turn attentions to the domestic demands and attempt to make the most of a situation that heightens their hopes of doing what Aberdeen did to them last year and making the most of the extra rest time between games to push for domestic success. Hibs are in the same boat and after a poor start to their Premiership campaign – three defeats in the opening three games cost Lee Johnson and his management team their jobs – they have to find a way to recharge confidence, reinvigorate the players, and kick-start their season.

Both capital teams have had an unsettled start, with form a problem. They have both also been hamstrung by managerial issues. While Hibs’ problems were played out front and centre as travelling fans barracked the gaffer and the players in Andorra and pressure built to a crescendo of chants demanding Johnson’s sacking as they succumbed to Livngston last weekend and dropped to the foot of the Premiership table, Hearts’ furtiveness in trying to circumnavigate UEFA coaching constraints has been a bit of an unwelcome sideshow as they suffered glitches in their league results, dropping points to Kilmarnock and then Dundee.

They will hope to have things resolved in the coming week as they lean on their home form and the backing of the Tynecastle crowd when they welcome Motherwell to Gorgie on Sunday and then adjust the coaching structure, bringing technical director Steven Naismith out from behind the curtain and reinstalling him as the gaffer, with his stand-in Frankie McAvoy reverting to his position as assistant.

McAvoy predicted as much after the team’s Euro exit in Greece. Appointed head coach in the summer due to Naismith’s lack of the UEFA Pro Licence he needed to manage in UEFA’s European club competitions, McAvoy acknowledged that now that they had departed that stage, things would soon change off the pitch. But he warned that, regardless who was at the helm, things now need to change on it as well.

“We can’t dwell on [European football], it’s gone,” said McAvoy. “We finished fourth in the league last season and what we need to do now is try and finish third this season to guarantee us getting into the Conference League. That’s where you want to be, you want to be competing against the best teams. We need to do better back home in our league.”

Home form has not tended to be the issue, though, which is something they will have to address if they want to bag as many points as they can while Aberdeen continue to battle on two fronts. While they won 12 games and dropped 19 points on their own turf, last season, the Gorgie men won just three games and leaked 41 points on the road. Having missed out on third spot by three points, it is clear how damaging and costly that proved as they now watch Aberdeen cash in on their guaranteed Conference League spot.

If Hearts are looking at any Aberdeen distraction as a positive, so too will Hibs, if they can get results moving in a positive direction. But they will feel that their trip to Pittodrie on Sunday has not come at the optimum time. Managerless and, like Aberdeen, coming off the back of a tough European night, they could do without a trip to a ground which rarely gifts them points. They have managed just one win there since 2012. Which is why, it might have been better if fortune had delivered a later meeting, after the Leith club had time to regroup and the extra demands on Barry Robson’s team were given the opportunity to take effect.

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But the capital sides can’t rely on lucky fixture breaks. They need to be smart and they need to get their seasons moving. Sorting out the managerial limbo at each club is short-term. Longer term they need to make the most of Aberdeen’s extra commitments and show that the sadness they felt at their own Euro exits can be channelled into a determination to ensure they get themselves into a position where they can prolong their involvement next season.