NO-ONE at Easter Road expects instant miracles from Farid El Alagui when he makes his long-awaited comeback from injury, but there is no doubt that the striker is returning to action at an opportune stage of the season.
If any Hibernian fan had forgotten the difference the 29-year-old could make, Sunday’s defeat by Rangers provided a timely reminder. Up against a three-man defence not known for their speed, Dominique Malonga and Franck Dja Djedje failed to test their pace and also struggled to make a physical impact. Especially when paired with Jason Cummings, who sat out the 2-0 loss because of a knee concern, El Alagui can pose a more skilful and a more robust challenge to defenders. And, with seven matches left before the play-offs, beginning today with a tricky visit to Raith, his return could restore the momentum that Hibs lost at the start of the week.
The Bordeaux-born Moroccan played for a Hibs Development Squad against Celtic in midweek, and may be given a place on the bench for this afternoon’s Championship match at Stark’s Park. But, no matter how eager he is to get involved at first-team level again after seven months out recovering from a snapped Achilles tendon, El Alagui know he cannot rush this last stage of his journey back to match fitness.
“I got my first 90 minutes in on Tuesday and it went well, to be honest. It was on Astroturf as well so, especially for the mind, it was good to get through it,” he said, referring to the fact that his injury occurred on the artificial surface at Alloa.
“It’s been a long time, more than six months now, so I’m delighted to be back. I feel good.
“Big games are coming along, the semi-finals of the cup and the play-offs as well, but before that we have to make sure we secure second spot. It will be a good fight with Rangers to try to get there, so we just have to make sure we get things right and then go into the play-offs full of confidence.
“I think I am coming back at the right time for the team. It’s good to have everyone fit and hopefully no-one will get injured between now and the end of the season. We need everyone to be fully fit.
“I have talked to the manager and he has told me he doesn’t want me to rush back. He wants me to come back and be 100 per cent, which is right.
“From my point of view I would have loved to have been involved last week on the bench, but if I am being really, really honest I wasn’t 100 per cent fit then.
“It was good to get my first 90 minutes on Tuesday. And I will discuss with him what he thinks and see if I need another one or maybe be involved this weekend.
“But I have to make sure I am 100 per cent. Maybe it’s not important to be fit for this weekend, but for the next games coming. So I don’t want to rush things now.”
Having said that, El Alagui also admitted that he was desperate to get on the scoresheet again – and be reunited with the lucky coin that is produced off the bench each time he scores. “I managed to score for the reserves [on Tuesday], but that was a bit different,” he said.
“I just can’t wait to score for the first team and hit the net again and have that feeling. That’s what I have missed the most.
“John Doolan [first-team coach] has my lucky coin. I hope he still has it and that he didn’t spend it at Christmas!
“I had better check with him before my first game. I hope he will take it out a few times this season – at Hampden and in the play-offs would be good.”
Hibs manager Alan Stubbs agreed that his striker may require another game or two elsewhere before he is named in the first team. “He’s getting closer,” Stubbs said. “He’ll be in the squad this weekend and then we’ll decide whether he’s on the bench or anything more.
“I still think he’s a game or so away. He’s played a 45, a 60 and then he played a 90 during the week for the first time. But he’s been out for over six months and I think anyone coming back needs a run of four, five or six games. There’s going to be no pressure on him whatsoever. He’ll be back and he’ll be ready when we get the tell-tale signs from him in training and games. He’s still very much on course with his programme.”
Unsurprisingly, Stubbs was too tactful to say that a fully-fit El Alagui would be an automatic choice for him. But it appears sure to happen, the only uncertainty being whether the impetus gained as a result will be enough to give Hibs the edge over Rangers in the race for second place.
“He’ll give us something different,” Stubbs added. “He’ll give us a different way of playing and a more physical presence up there to what we’ve got. From that point of view I’m hoping it will feel like a new signing.
“It will be a nice problem to have, the fact we’ve got Dominique, Jason, Djedje and Farid coming back into the firing line. It gives me something to ponder.”
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