After years of decline under previous managers, and months of inconsistency with Stubbs, Hibs are at last coming good. True, they have only just won three successive league games for the first time this season, whereas Hearts have won their last seven, but the improvement is unmistakable.
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Saturday’s 4-0 demolition of Rangers has encouraged the Hibs squad to believe that they can, at the very least, give a good account of themselves against the league leaders, and they are buoyed by the fact that they have nothing to lose. Although 19 points behind Hearts and apparently with no chance of catching up, the Easter Road side are now surely destined to get into the play-off places. If they do, and if they maintain the form they have been showing of late, there is every possibility that both Edinburgh teams will be promoted back to the Premiership at the end of the season.
In the short term, of course, the focus will be purely on the derby. Hibs were minutes away from ending Hearts’ unbeaten run the last time the clubs met and, although Alim Ozturk’s magnificent stoppage-time strike denied them that day, they must fancy their chances of avoiding such disappointment this time round.
“If we can go to Tynecastle and put on a performance like we did against Rangers, we’ll get a result and build again,” Hibs captain Liam Craig said after celebrating his 28th birthday by scoring his team’s fourth and final goal in the rout of the Ibrox club. “There’s definitely belief in the squad that we can go further.
“There are players throughout the team who can score goals, we know that. There’s a lot of excitement around the place already and a result like beating Rangers so comfortably makes it even better. We felt a result and performance like that was coming. But we’re not getting carried away by one game, even though it’s a massive confidence-booster.
“People will talk about what’s going on at Rangers and everything, but you can’t take away from what we did. We were outstanding from start to finish, without the ball and with the ball. Our attitude was spot-on and we fully deserved the win.
“The manager has been top drawer since he came in. It’s just taken us a while to find our feet. You look even at last week – a lot of people would have thought that we couldn’t come back from 1-0 down away to Raith. In the past, that’s the kind of situation that has seen us struggle.
“But we went on and won convincingly, building confidence all the way. We know we’ve got good players in this team. You look at boys like Scott Allan and Dominique Malonga, boys like that, we know we can win games.”
To outsiders, the race for second place, if that is what it proves to be, may be a minor concern. After all, you can finish well off the pace in fourth, and yet still go up via the play-offs. But Craig, who was in the Hibs team that went down via the play-offs last season, is convinced that the higher in the table a club finishes, the smoother its path to the final against the team which finishes second bottom of the Premiership.
“There’s a long way to go, and if we’re in the play-offs come the end of the season, we’ll be ready for it. Next week is going to be massive and we just need to keep building momentum. If we’re going to be in the play-offs, momentum is going to be massive. We look at Rangers: it’s only four points between us now.
“And we’re not silly. We realise that finishing second means you only have to play four play-off games, not six. So we all look forward to that. It’s a big game next week and we want to keep the run going.
“It’s down to four points. We’ve won three games on the bounce now. And momentum is massive.
“There was definitely no fear factor against Rangers. I said in the build-up that we know, on our day, we’re capable of beating anyone. We showed that.
“And it’s the same next weekend. In the two previous games against Hearts, there hasn’t been a lot in it at all. So we look forward to it off the back of a 4-0 at home, ideal preparation.
“The fans will be buzzing for the derby. They were excellent for the Rangers game and they deserved that performance because they’ve been through a lot. If we can now win at Tynecastle, that will give them the perfect start to the new year.”
That perfect start might persuade the more optimistically-minded of those fans that their team could yet overhaul Hearts, but Craig preferred not to commit himself when asked if Hibs were only playing for second. “There are 18 games left,” he said. “We take them as they come.
“Hearts have been excellent this season and you’ve got to give them credit for being unbeaten. In this league, that’s not easy. We will definitely be ready for them this weekend.”
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