Hibs keeper is psyching himself up for what could be a busy Sunday afternoon

AS a goalkeeper, Graham Stack almost visibly winces as he contemplates an Easter Sunday home shoot-out between Republic of Ireland hot-shots Anthony Stokes and Robbie Keane.

The presence of Hibs hitman Stokes, scorer of 20 goals so far this season, and his Celtic countryman Keane, who has netted 11 in as many games for the Hoops, should, the Easter Road No.1 predicted, guarantee a feast for the supporters.

Stack, however, insisted he'd happily settle for a single goal, as long as it's one of his team-mates who has scored in a match which is crucial to both sides.

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Victory is essential for John Hughes' players as they seek to hunt down Dundee United, the Tannadice outfit now five points clear in third place in the SPL following Wednesday night's 4-2 triumph in the Capital.

And for Celtic the three points are just as important, the 4-1 defeat inflicted on Old Firm rivals by St Johnstone proving Walter Smith's outfit remain far from infallible although the Ibrox side obviously remain red-hot favourites to lift the title once again.

Agreeing the ten-point gap between the two Glasgow giants will probably prove too much for Celtic to overcome in the final seven matches of the season – Rangers also holding the advantage of a game in hand – Stack insisted it won't stop interim Hoops boss Neil Lennon trying to pull off mission impossible.

He said: "Both sides are desperate for the points for different reasons. We need them to try to get back to third spot and Celtic, although the title has probably gone at this moment in time, will be looking to give it a real push between now and the end of the season for the new guy in charge.

"Celtic are well-equipped and have a lot of quality. They probably feel they have let themselves down this season in regard to where they are in the League and their performances in recent weeks.

"It's got all the makings of a cracking match between two sides who will be really going for it."

The presence of Stokes and Keane, allied to defensive frailties on both sides – St Mirren's 4-0 victory in Paisley last week culminating in the sacking of former Hibs boss Tony Mowbray – does, Stack believes, give Sunday's early kick-off and extra edge. Although he's much- travelled, having played for Arsenal, Millwall, Reading, Leeds United, Wolves, Plymouth and Blackpool down south, as is Keane, who has starred for Wolves, Coventry City, Leeds, Spurs and Liverpool as well as a spell at Inter Milan, Stack revealed their paths have never crossed on the pitch.

He said: "I've never actually played with or against Robbie but obviously I am aware of how good he is. He's well capable and I'd put him up there with Kris Boyd as the best finishers in the League.

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"But we've also got goals in our side with Stokesy and Deeks having got 35 between them this season. I'd imagine Anthony's target at the start of the season was probably 20 and to have achieved that is a great feat for him.

"Both Anthony and Derek are natural finishers, although the gaffer has been looking for them to work on different aspects of their game which he wants to see them improve. But when it comes to goal-scoring there's nothing more to be said."

As such Stack admitted he wouldn't be surprised if he and Celtic goalkeeper Artur Boruc find themselves busier than they'd like, adding: "Both sides are capable of scoring bundles of goals but there's also that bit of frailty. We leaked four against United the other night and Celtic shipped just as many at St Mirren.

"You could be on for a 4-3 scoreline, although I'd rather a 1-0 so long as we win. As a goalkeeper or defender you pride yourself on clean sheets and I'm sure both Anthony and Derek wouldn't have too many complaints if we were to win 1-0 and neither of them scores.

"At this moment it does not matter who scores for us as long as we get back to winning ways. After winning at Falkirk last weekend expectations were high. We felt we were capable of beating United and we gave ourselves a great start with that first-minute goal from Patrick Cregg.

"Then we conceded two, had chances to get back into it but didn't and ended up bitterly disappointed."

Just as he doesn't expect Lennon to throw in the towel before it is mathematically impossible for Celtic to catch Rangers, so, too, does Stack refuse to concede that third place, once seemingly guaranteed, is now beyond Hibs.

Mindful of how Hibs went to Celtic Park earlier this season and won with Danny Galbraith's last-minute strike, he said: "There's still a lot of football to be played and we'll have United to play again at some stage, so it's too early to be saying third spot is out of the question.

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"But we haven't made it easy for ourselves. We are up against it and, between now and the end of the season, we'll have some very tough matches so the sooner we get back to winning ways the better.

"There's no point talking about luck, or blaming this or that, the only ones who can get us back on track are us, the players. We can't feel sorry for ourselves, feel down or despondent, feeling things have gone against us. We need to turn things around and it will be up to the boys on Sunday to make things happen again."

Having said that, however, Stack is well aware of the air of doom and gloom which has fallen on the supporters who, only a few weeks ago, were anticipating third place and a Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden next weekend.

What has gone largely un-noticed is the fact that Hibs have already surpassed last season's points total and currently lie two places above the position in which they finished.

Stack agreed a scintillating start to the campaign had raised expectations to such a level that it's inevitable recent events have been met with bitter disappointment.

He said: "You look for improvement every season and, from the points total and where we are in the League, there has been an improvement. But it's been a topsy-turvy season. We started fantastically well but we've fallen away. I don't know why, if I could tell you the reason I'd be a manager not a player.

"Things seem to have gone against us but it's swings and roundabouts, I feel we had a lot of luck earlier in the season but we can't keep blaming other people or this or that for what's happened.

"There are still seven games to go, a lot can change, if we can kick on, hopefully starting with Sunday. We can look to make it a real fight for third place – but it is going to be difficult."