The second Edinburgh derby of the season is upon us with Hearts hosting Hibs at Tynecastle under the lights tonight.
Hearts go into the game hoping to build on a run of four consecutive clean sheets and cut the gap in the table between themselves and Hibs to two points while the Easter Road side are looking to increase that gap as well as keeping a tight grip on the coattails of Aberdeen and Rangers. Without further ado, here are five talking points ahead of the final Edinburgh derby of 2017...
The Stokes factor
Anthony Stokes was forced to sit out the last meeting between the rivals through injury, but given his liking for the big occasion, the Irishman will be champing at the bit to get going tonight. His performance at the weekend against Ross County was much more like the Stokes of old, with the 29-year-old at the heart of everything Hibs did. It was no surprise when he bagged the equaliser with a precise header, and Martin Boyle should have done better from his perfectly weighted through ball. Stokes revealed he’d been doing extra in the gym to rediscover his sharpness - if his performance tonight mirrors his game against the Staggies, the Hearts defence could be in for a busy night.
Hearts’ tactical approach
Craig Levein and his coaching team were rightly praised for their tactical nous before and during the 4-0 victory over Celtic, even if Austin MacPhee did concede that it wouldn’t work in every game. However, Levein has indicated how much he’d love to be the man to end Hibs’ unbeaten run in Edinburgh derbies and will almost certainly have devised a tactical approach aimed at stifling the Easter Road side’s creativity. In the last meeting, Martin Boyle and Brandon Barker wreaked havoc on both wings, the former Dundee attacker rinsing Jamie Brandon time and time again on the right while the on-loan Manchester City wideman set up Simon Murray for the only goal of the game. With John McGinn and Stokes also needing shackled plus the threat posed by Lewis Stevenson - the defender rivals McGinn for the number of passes he’s made that lead to attempts on goal - Levein will have to get his tactics spot on to keep Hibs in check.
The suspended Harry Cochrane will be a big miss for the home side - the 16-year-old virtually played Scott Brown out of the game and would have been fancied to do likewise with McGinn.
Who starts up front for Hibs?
Ironically, this was a debate ahead of the previous derby, but for very different reasons. Stokes was out injured and Simon Murray was going through patchy form. Teenage striker Oli Shaw had just scored against Celtic at Hampden within a minute of stepping onto the pitch. In the end, Lennon put his faith in Murray and the flame-haired striker repaid his manager with the only goal of the game after just three minutes. This time, however, Stokes is available and Lennon may opt for a 4-4-2 formation to accommodate him and one other striker. The smart money would be on Shaw keeping his starting place after he impressed against Ross County, bagging the winner and playing the role of target man for Hibs. Although Shaw isn’t the bulkiest of forwards, he wins a lot in the air and holds the ball up well. Murray’s boundless energy is a boon for Hibs and he may be required to come on later in the game to provide Lennon’s side with something different in the final third.
Main man Milinkovic
An unused sub at Easter Road, David Milinkovic will play a bigger part in tonight’s match with Hearts hoping the Franco-Serbian winger is able to replicate his performance from the 4-0 win over Celtic. Although he took time to settle into the Scottish game, the on-loan Genoa man will be tasked with making things happen for Levein’s men. His task won’t be made easy by coming up against David Gray, who will likely start at right back for Hibs and loves a good scrap with a tricky winger but after seeing Milinkovic’s mercurial performance against Celtic, there’s no reason why he can’t recreate that display. Expect to see him drifting inside to support Kyle Lafferty and while he could be accused of inconsistency - like almost every winger - another big occasion and a full house at Tynecastle may just spark Milinkovic to put in another storming performance.
Bartley on the bench?
A few weeks ago, Marvin Bartley’s name would almost certainly have been one of the first on the team-sheet for a game of this magnitude. This Londoner relishes this type of game and it’s his grafting in the middle of the park that frees up Dylan McGeouch and John McGinn to pull the strings in midfield. But the 31-year-old struggled to impose himself on the game during Hibs’ trip to Pittodrie and was hooked at half time. Against Ross County, he was an 89th minute sub for Brandon Barker. While there’s no doubting his pedigree, Bartley could find himself on the bench once again but like Murray, could be a vital cog in the second half depending on how Hibs are faring.