Ahead of the final Edinburgh derby of the season, in Gorgie tonight, there has been a modicum of restraint as managers try to focus on their own teams rather than offer up barbs that could fire up the opposition.
But in stating facts, Hibernian manager Neil Lennon could get away with a dig, explaining that while he wants to win the fixture, if things go against his men then he can take solace in the way his side have out-performed their rivals throughout the campaign.
“We are the better team. We could lose tonight, but the league table tells you that we are 20 points clear,” said Lennon. “Twenty points. That is a chasm. We know how we play and what style of football we play.”
In the first season back in the top tier, after three seasons spent trying to regroup in the Championship, they have quickly made up lost ground on the teams around and go into their final two league matches still vying with Aberdeen and Rangers for second place and aware that a Europa League qualifying spot remains within their grasp.
“Ultimately, I think we will need to win both games and we’ll go in with that mindset,” added Lennon. “The only thing that is at stake for us is three points and we are going to treat it like another game. There is nothing new – this is the fifth time we have played Hearts – and I’m not going to build it into something it’s not.”
The team with the upper hand across those fixtures, they have yet to beat the Tynecastle side on their own turf. Twice they have travelled across the city and twice they have had to head home without the victory, losing the Scottish Cup tie and drawing the Premiership encounter, albeit in contentious circumstances after a ‘goal’ was disallowed.
That decision cost them two points and may yet prove the difference between them achieving their aims or having to settle for a finishing berth slightly further down the table.
“You have got to let it go,” said Lennon. “We have made up a lot of ground on teams since then. We have good players at the minute and they have the bit between their teeth and we are guaranteed fourth so, if Celtic win the cup, that means we are in Europe. But we don’t want to rely on other teams.
“I said that the start of the season that Celtic were out on their own but then there was a second group of Aberdeen and Rangers, and then it is all the rest. But we still have a chance to break into that second group so there’s still everything to play for.”
Even a point over the final two games would allow them to surpass the club’s best points total, amassed by the 2000/01 squad, which highlights their consistency throughgout the campaign.
“It is outstanding. The players have been outstanding,” said Lennon. “They have really played well and I think they have entertained and been a shot in the arm to the division. They don’t go out and sit back, they try to get on the front foot and entertain. They earn the right to play and when they do, they can really play. But we are not resting on our laurels just yet and we’ll take stock of things after Sunday.”
First, though, they need to take care of the derby and another trip to Tynecastle where, on Sunday, Celtic became the first away team to leave victorious this term.
“It’s a an awkward place to go,” stated Lennon. “It’s a tight pitch, it’s not a good playing surface, it’s one of the narrowest pitches in the country and always a good atmosphere. It took a very good side to end their unbeaten record. We’re under no illusions about how tough it will be.”