Hibernian could bemoan misfortune during an imperfect campaign but, for once, there is optimism the squad may be about to display perfect timing.
With Congo’s qualification this week for the Africa Cup of Nations finals in January, the Easter Road side are now steeling themselves for the prolonged absence of striker Dominique Malonga in the new year. However, head coach Alan Stubbs revealed yesterday he is increasingly hopeful Farid El Alagui will return from serious injury to ensure a seamless transition up front.
Should it work out as hoped, the neat synchronicity will carry a sense of irony, given that Malonga was recruited in September after summer signing El Alagui was ruled out for up to six months with a ruptured Achilles tendon days earlier. For the Moroccan to be ready to step into Malonga’s expected breach, he would have to complete his rapid recovery at the quicker end of that timescale but, given his progress so far, Stubbs is as confident as he can be that serendipity will be on his side.
“When you’ve got international players, then at some point you are going to lose them during the season,” he said. “But, potentially, when Dominique goes, if he’s selected, we’ll be hoping we’ll have another one coming straight back in, because hopefully Farid won’t be too far away at that time.
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“We’ll just have to wait and see but Farid’s doing very well at this moment in time. We haven’t set any targets but we don’t think he’ll be a million miles away from around that time.
“It could be the first week in January, it could be the last week in January, it could be the first week in February. But we don’t envisage him being a lot longer than that.”
Malonga, born in Paris and capped by France at under-19 level, made his full international debut when he played the final 13 minutes of Congo’s historic 1-0 victory away to Sudan on Wednesday night. Combined with Nigeria’s 2-2 draw in South Africa, the Red Devils’ success was enough for the country of his parents’ birth to clinch qualification for the finals of the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time since 2000 and deny the reigning champions passage to the tournament’s climax in Equatorial Guinea between 17 January and 8 February.
Stubbs knows all about the finals’ disruption, having seen, particularly during his time in English football, increasing numbers spirited away midway through the season for international duty. However, perhaps buoyed by the prospect of El Alagui timing his return to perfection, the former Celtic and Everton defender appears genuinely thrilled that Malonga is earning such high-profile recognition.
The former Torino and Cesena striker, who has netted six times in ten appearances since joining Hibs, was sorely missed as the capital side stuttered in Saturday’s goalless stalemate at home to Queen of the South, but was due back in Scotland last night and is expected to train today before returning to action against Dumbarton tomorrow.
Stubbs is hopeful there could be a spin-off at club level from Malonga’s momentous week.
“Dominique should be on a bit of a high,” added Stubbs, who revealed a minor knock kept the Parisian out of Congo’s earlier 2-0 defeat by Nigeria at the weekend.
“First and foremost, he got his first international cap and the fact they qualified means he has had a really positive experience from going away on his first international trip.
“I hope he’s still up there on Saturday. You can never bring someone down to earth too much when they’ve had a real confidence boost from that experience. We’ll just keep managing him and let him take it into the game on Saturday.”
More immediately, Hibs look likely to have varying injury news for the trip to Dumbarton, with goalkeeper Mark Oxley expected to miss out and midfielder Scott Robertson more likely to be passed fit.
Oxley missed the visit of Queen of the South after being removed at half-time the previous week against Cowdenbeath with a back injury, while Robertson was also absent on Saturday after it emerged he broke a bone in his hand at Central Park.
Stubbs added: “Mark is settling down. I think it’s going to be a big ask for him to be available on Saturday. We haven’t ruled it out but it’s looking more unlikely than likely.
“Scott has probably got a better chance. But, the same again, we just have to monitor him over the next day, and if he comes through that then we’ve got a decision to make. Obviously, he has got a protective cast on and it still is a little bit tender. But it’s just whether he’s able to play through that pain. He’s done a little bit of training, so we’ll do a bit more tomorrow and that will tell us whether he’ll be available or not.”
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