Race for third is on - Hibs emergence, Hearts worst performance of the season, Livingston and St Mirren role

“All this talk is external, it’s a good storyline for everyone, but we are only five points clear.” Hearts boss Robbie Neilson painted a sobering picture of his team's grasp on third place in the Scottish Premiership. Defeat to Motherwell on Sunday, coupled with Hibs’ comfortable victory over Kilmarnock less than 24 hours earlier saw the fuse lit on the race for the coveted ‘best of the rest’.

It is a position which could bring rewards in the millions from European group stage football and one many thought the Tynecastle Park side had sewn up only a few weeks ago having lost just twice in the league since October, both against Rangers, while rivals tripped, stumbled and faltered. Sunday saw Hearts fall flat on their face with perhaps their worst 90-minute performance, going down 2-0 to revitalised Motherwell side at Fir Park. If anything, the scoreline was generous on the visitors. With a two-week break coming up, it was an opportunity to return fire after the gap to fourth was reduced. Instead, the gap between third and Livingston in sixth is just seven points.

Hearts still have a strong command of third place and have had plenty of setbacks this campaign, especially early on but have provided enough examples of that ability to bounce back and a depth to their squad. But there are issues, which we will get to.

Hibs are clicking

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The big story of the weekend, however, certainly with regards to the top half of Premiership, is Hibs’ continued progress under Lee Johnson. The Easter Road side were at a low ebb around this time last month having been defeated by Hearts 3-0 for the second time in the space of three weeks. There was an element of one step forward and another back since the return from the World Cup break. Now it’s continued forward movement and they are building up pace. Not only have the results improved but the performances have been more rounded. They were excellent in demolishing Aberdeen 6-0 and then for large periods of the first half against Killie. Two games they should have been expecting to win considering their opponents’ difficulties on the road. But the stand out result was a 1-0 win at St Mirren. This isn’t tongue in cheek, the SMiSA Stadium has been a fortress for the Buddies.

Johnson has the proclivity to raise an eyebrow or two when he is in front of the media. There will be plenty within Scottish football who may struggle to take to him but he remains an engaging figure and has been consistent in his message about what he wants from his team and his desire for players with a certain footballing IQ. The team are clicking, delivering more complete and effective performances rather than impressing in stages. It has been aided by individuals stepping up and new arrivals settling in.

The squad in the first half of the season was too big yet it lacked depth. That was addressed in the January window. The trio brought in have already made a positive impact. The versatile CJ Egan-Riley was in the running for man of the match against Kilmarnock for his all-round midfield performance, impressing in and out of possession. You look around the squad now and there is greater depth. By the time the crucial game with Livingston arrives in two weeks’ time, Johnson should be able to call on Kevin Nisbet and Mykola Kuharevich. Kyle Magennis and Jake Doyle-Hayes returned at the weekend. Yet, they will supplement what is already in place rather than take over. Will Fish and Elie Youan have thrived having been given more responsibility. The former is such an assured presence at the back to the point Ryan Porteous has not yet been missed. As for Youan, while he can frustrate and try to do too much on his own, he can terrify defences with his pace, mobility and ability to turn with the ball in one movement.

Hearts issues

Hearts have got the better of Hibs so far this season. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)Hearts have got the better of Hibs so far this season. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)
Hearts have got the better of Hibs so far this season. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)

Hibs look fresh and lively. The same can't be said for Hearts. They have lacked fluency in recent weeks, even in wins. It has been a long campaign but now there is greater rest and recovery periods Europe can't be used as a reason for a lack of verve or rhythm. Supporters are concerned about an over reliance on Robert Snodgrass. The midfielder has been hugely influential. So much so he has been the target of opposition teams. It’s as if the team are still working out how to use him as a decoy and take responsibility when he’s not an option. It has not been helped with other individuals, key players from last season, who are out of form. One of the main targets amongst the club's fans has been Barrie McKay. He perhaps epitomises the team at this moment. Capable of great moments but far from his consistent best.

As ever when the team go through difficult periods, Robbie Neilson takes plenty of criticism. There have been personnel and tactical tweaks which the head coach may do differently if he was given the chance, namely the line-up and set-up in a recent home defeat to Rangers. Even with all of that, the team are still in the driving seat and have come through worse moments. It should be noted, a difficult run of games is on the horizon with three consecutive away games after a home clash with St Johnstone.

Behind the Edinburgh duo, neither St MIrren nor Livingston should be discounted. The Buddies continue to excel in Paisley, while Livi have a game in hand and have a habit of giving their Lothian rivals a bloody nose. Hibs are up next in West Lothian. There may not be a tight title race but there are plenty of storylines in the Premiership. The latest Hibs’ resurgence and the battle for Europe.



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