Less than seven weeks after their long-awaited 1-0 derby victory at Tynecastle, Hearts go into an all-Edinburgh contest with a very different outlook.
Prior to that match the home side were on a high. Stevie Naismith was an exciting January signing, they held a nine-game unbeaten run and possessed a seemingly impenetrable back-line. Hibs, meanwhile, were in a state of flux. Anthony Stokes had been jettisoned from the club, leaving Neil Lennon’s side badly in need of firepower up front. Australian Jamie Maclaren was brought in to provide another option but, rather curiously, he remained on the bench throughout the 90 minutes as the visitors failed to stretch their dominance in the fixture to ten games.
On Friday evening the clubs do battle again, but this time it’s the home fans who will be going into the match with renewed confidence. Not only have the additions of Florian Kamberi and Scott Allan, along with a fully-fit Maclaren, improved the squad from the first half of the season, they will also be facing an opponent severely weakened by a series of injuries.
Arnaud Djoum and Demetri Mitchell are definitely out, while Christophe Berra, John Souttar and David Milinkovic are significant doubts. That’s five of the starting XI from January’s cup match. Factor in Hibs elevated position in the Ladbrokes Premiership table and there’s plenty to be apprehensive about for those among the away ranks.
It also doesn’t help that Hearts have suffered their worst run of form since October-November. Four games without a win now sees the Jambos out of the cup and looking nervously over their shoulder at Motherwell, who sit just four points behind with a game in hand in seventh place.
Dropping out of the top six, regardless of the upheaval at the start of the season, is unthinkable. Not only would it act as an embarrassment for the third best supported club in the country, it would also leave Craig Levein right back at square one in the eyes of the fans. The Tynecastle boss has never had his critics to seek and there are plenty within his own support.
Public opinion was at its lowest after the six-game winless streak which led into December, before rising to its peak with the 1-0 triumph over Hibs. It’s already falling back to earth and would accelerate through the floor if another defeat is suffered at Easter Road. Make no mistake about it, this is a huge game in Levein’s second tenure.
Hearts need a result. Victory is not imperative, it just can’t be a defeat. The away support will hope to see their favourites achieve this by going to Leith, taking the game to the hosts and wiping the floor with them. We all know that’s not very likely. Not unless Hibs have a severe off-day or Hearts catch lightning in a bottle again like they managed in the 4-0 triumph against Celtic.
In order to get that sought after result, Hearts will have to rediscover the steeliness which defined them just a few weeks ago. They’ll have to keep things tight, make few mistakes in defence and, in order to avoid one-way traffic, have enough composure in possession and threat on the counter attack to keep Hibs honest. While the Gorgie side are no great shakes as an attacking side - creating the fewest open play chances in the league (per @SPFLRadar) - for the majority of this campaign they have been an absolute bugger to defeat. Even with two losses in the last three, it’s still only seven from 28 games since Levein returned to the dugout.
What they absolutely must not do is concede an early goal, which has been some sort of weird predilection for Hearts going to their neighbours across the years, even when the team was performing well. The longer the game stays at 0-0 the quieter the home crowd will get. They’ll know this is a chance to get revenge and, in the context of this season, step on the neck of their rivals. The fear of passing that up could turn confidence into nervousness, and then a surprise victory would be there for the taking.
This is a situation Levein has found himself in several times before, having walked into Easter Road as the underdog both as a player and a manager. He’s managed to get results then and he’ll back himself to do so once more. Though the visiting fans won’t be travelling in expectation, they’ll know their history and that will allow for a healthy dollop of hope. It is only Hibs after all.
When Levein beamed about the “natural order” being restored he wasn’t just having a dig at his rivals, even if that was his sole intention. He was also telling Hearts fans ‘things are going to be different from now on’. Staying true to his word would keep enough credit in the bank and buy him sufficient time to rebuild the squad. It would allow him to lead the team into the 2018/19 campaign with the support still behind him.
There’s a helluva lot riding on these 90 minutes.