In recent times, starting from his period in charge, Celtic and Rangers have never enjoyed easy times at Easter Road, where Steven Gerrard’s men will pitch up this evening. They will do so on the back of the treble treble chasing Parkhead club, despite having their world turned upside down through the departure of Brendan Rodgers that brought a return to the club’s management role for Neil Lennon, enduring no real difficulties in booking their place in the Scottish Cup semi-final last weekend.
It was not the sort of statement that Paul Heckingbottom would have hoped to make following three wins to begin his tenure at the Leith club. It seemed that he had swapped the pressing, aggressive strategy that Stubbs and Lennon adopted against Glasgow’s big two for something altogether more passive. Stubbs offers a plea in mitigation for a Heckingbottom he is convinced will be a successful coach at Easter Road, though does acknowledge that he will hope for more against the Ibrox men tonight.
“To be fair to Paul it is the first encounter he has had against an Old Firm team and it is one that he will have to analyse and adjust to,” he said. “I would have to agree that it was probably the least impact a Hibs team has had against an Old Firm team for a while. And obviously the first goal was the killer blow. Before then I always felt that Hibs were more containing Celtic rather than actually trying to take the game to them which is difficult. You have to look at it and think there are a few injuries that would have been a huge factor in that. Martin Boyle is a huge loss. And in missing [Ryan] Porteous to potentially go to three at the back which they have done in the past was a loss, and there was no Efe Ambrose. So they have lost some key figures. You have to take that into account but it is the least effective they have been for a good few years.
“Paul started really well with three really good wins and then he suddenly finds out who the two big animals are in the league. He found out last weekend and then there is Rangers tonight. So you have to learn from it quickly.
“Every team outwith the Old Firm are always going to find it difficult to play against them and it is no different with Hibs. He will be in the process of trying to put his own stamp on the team and that might take a little bit of time. He is certainly a good manager and I think he will do well there.”
There aren’t only home concerns this evening, though, Stubbs stresses. In trailing Celtic by eight points with only ten Premiership games remaining, Gerrard and Co are in danger of being ejected from the last chance saloon.
Stubbs lays it on the line; they will be out on their ear from it if they fail to win tonight. Even the pretence of a title race would be snuffed out in that event. In truth he suggests that Rangers’ inability to rack up the league wins week after week could have already suffocated their prospects.
“If Rangers don’t beat Hibs it is going to be very difficult,” he said, with his “very difficult” simply a euphemism for “impossible”.
“If they lose and Celtic win on Saturday that will be 11 points. Rangers have not won five games on the bounce in the league this year. That tells you how hard their task is. I think to win the title Rangers need to win nine and probably all ten games. That is an enormous feat to achieve when they haven’t won five in a row in the league this season.”
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