‘Another open game against Celtic would suit Hibs best’

Gary Hooper and Anthony Stokes both scored during Celtic's second-half burst at Easter Road, but Neil Lennon was scathing of his strikeforce's efforts yesterday afternoon. Photo: Alan Harvey
Gary Hooper and Anthony Stokes both scored during Celtic's second-half burst at Easter Road, but Neil Lennon was scathing of his strikeforce's efforts yesterday afternoon. Photo: Alan Harvey
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HAVING shipped four goals to Celtic in a devastating 23-minute second-half spell on Wednesday night, you might expect Hibernian manager Colin Calderwood to be hoping for a less free-flowing contest when the teams reconvene in Glasgow tomorrow.

But, despite the crushing 4-1 defeat in a pulsating Scottish Communities League Cup quarter-final at Easter Road, Calderwood insists Hibs will have a better chance of revenge on SPL business at Celtic Park if the match is similarly stretched at both ends of the pitch.

After taking an early lead on Wednesday, Hibs’ best moments came in the shape of rapid breakaways when Celtic were committed to attack. Regardless of the havoc Neil Lennon’s men ultimately wreaked on his defence after the break, Calderwood does not see any need to change the shape of his team tomorrow.

“I think an open game is to our benefit,” he said. “There could be a lot of counter-attacking football on Saturday but, as on Wednesday, that was one of our biggest threats. We managed to break against them. We know we have to be better in possession of the ball, more careful.

“I’ve got no problem with the way we are set up. I don’t feel that we are so open. The boys do feel exposed a little bit at the back, but they are only exposed when we are not doing our jobs as a group. We have got enough numbers back when the goals are going in against us.

“That doesn’t mean to say we won’t park the bus at times on Saturday. We’re going to have to do that, have 10 men behind the ball, on lots of occasions against Celtic. In the difficult periods, I want to see improvement in terms of us getting through it.

“But I do think it can be easier for us going to Celtic Park. It’s a different competition and a different situation. We’ve got to be in it come the last 20 minutes, then the crowd and everything come into it on our side of the equation.

“That won’t be the case at the beginning, because the Celtic team and their supporters will be on an up after the second half last night. We’ve got to be aware of that and be ready to counter that. We’ve got to make the last 20 minutes as problematic as the first 20 minutes were for them on Wednesday.”

The unavailability of experienced defender Sean O’Hanlon, who is expected to return tomorrow, saw Hibs field three players aged 21 or under in their back four in the cup tie with young Welshman David Stephens making his first appearance for two months.

“That’s not an excuse or explanation,” added Calderwood. “It’s not the back four who were responsible for the goals, nor is it because we had too many attacking players at the other end of the pitch. We were not outnumbered. We were broken down from our own possession, from two set plays and one long ball. Everyone was in place, we just didn’t do it. We accept our fragility and we have to work on that. Four goals in a short period by Celtic just washed us away.”

Despite his own recognition of the obvious weaknesses Hibs have displayed throughout a stuttering season so far, Calderwood is encouraged by the willingness of his players to address them and seek improvement.

“Coming right back into training today was the best thing we could do,” he said, “and it helps to walk into this group of players and see the level of disappointment they are suffering but also the ambition they have got. They are willing to put themselves out there and be as honest and open as they have been.

“The youth of the team is the future and they are young men with the attributes to go forward. We have to accept they’ve had a knock on the nose and a whack on the chin but they keep coming back for more. Not too many just run to the treatment table and put themselves out of contention. I’ve seen it the other way at clubs in the past but this is a tight squad, everyone is involved, and I like it that way.”

Calderwood is hopeful that fear of being on the end of another heavy defeat can also work in his team’s favour.

“What motivates them is the fear of knowing what will happen if we don’t do the simple things well,” he said. “The fear of losing if they don’t go and stand up to Celtic. They must give it an honest go. It’s about trying to win headers, trying to win tackles, trying to pass the ball and have a threat.

“It is a real test, a proper test mentally and physically because of the week we’ve had. It will be interesting to see how we display our wares. It’s a good game to have but I wouldn’t say it’s perfect, because the defeat is very fresh in our memories.

“All we can do between now and Saturday is to get into their heads and get them right. There’s not a great deal we can change in terms of football over two days.”