The surprise loan of Glenn Middleton from Rangers to Hibs appears to signal a thawing in the icy relations between the clubs of late, but there will be little sign of that when the sides go head to head this weekend in a game which both sides will aim to make a springboard for their season.
Background to Game
Both come into the tie on the back of opening day victories but still very much with a point to prove. After an overwhelmingly positive pre-season, Rangers failed to convince with a laboured victory at Rugby Park which had an all too familiar feel to it. However, Thursday’s fabulous performance in Denmark has gone a long way to quelling those fears and putting the fans at ease again. Hibs had a similar opening day to Rangers when they left it late to grind out a win over a St Mirren side they would have expected to dispatch of comfortably at Easter Road.
Head to Head History
For a long time Hibs were not a side Rangers had to worry too much about. In 32 games between 1996 and 2005, Hibs recorded only one victory. The return of Walter Smith in 2007 saw this pattern continue with only 2 losses in 20 games. However, since Rangers were demoted Hibs have proven to be a thorn in their side, restricting the Gers to a mere 8 wins in 22 games.
This dismal record continued under Steven Gerrard last season as a poor Hibs side were allowed to land a severe blow to Rangers’ title hopes by holding them to three draws, costing the Ibrox men 6 crucial points. However the tide has started to turn and last season was the first season since 2011-12 that Rangers were unbeaten against Hibs and the one-sided games were a sign that the new rivalry between the clubs is not likely to last.
A change in regime at Hibs mid-season saw Heckingbottom take the reins and rescue their campaign as they embarked on an unlikely 10 game unbeaten run which lifted them from 8th to 5th place. This was the highest possible finish for the Englishman so it was a massive achievement. Lennon had built his house on the sand of loan deals and favours from Celtic and paid the price in his final season when the latter dried up after the John McGinn saga. Lennon was weighed in the balance and found wanting. Heckingbottom has had a summer to re-build and, in a break from the club’s previous strategy, he is building for the future. Lennon’s Hibs were propped up by the short-termist strategy of flooding the squad with loan players and in his final season he made seven loan signings. Remarkably, Heckingbottom has made only two loan signings and has preferred to utilise his extensive knowledge and connections south of the border to make 5 permanent signings who are all between the ages of 23 and 26. The signing of Scott Allan had already been agreed before he came in but is very much in keeping with this strategy.
Having said that, this season’s Hibs squad doesn’t look like the improvement over last season’s that the fans were expecting. The opening day performance was slow, laboured and lacking dynamism. The loss of Martin Boyle to injury was a huge blow in terms of the team’s attacking threat but Heckingbottom and Leanne Dempster were smart to move quickly to smooth things over with Rangers and secure Glenn Middleton on loan to replace him. Middleton has the ability to provide the pace and end product they are lacking but will not feature this weekend so answers will have to be found elsewhere.
Mallan and Horgan are both players with the ability to create and shoot from distance but the dangerman without doubt is Scott Allan. Rangers know all too well what Allan is capable of and everything Hibs did well against St Mirren went through him and it was no co-incidence that it was he who saved the day with an impressive winner.
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Despite Rangers’ midweek heroics, they still come into the game with a point to prove. Last season Hibs were a bogey team and Gerrard will be determined to vanquish any similarities to last season from the off, not least after the Kilmarnock game when the accusations flooded in that nothing has changed. Furthermore, dropping points ahead of the first Old Firm game of the season on the 1st of September is not an option. It is absolutely crucial that Gerrard takes his men into that game with the chance to go 3 points clear and give themselves a lead to defend and maintain from there on. This, more than anything, will signal to the fans and the country that this season is different.
The line-up is difficult to predict. Last season the goalkeeper was not rotated but McGregor is a year older and Foderingham was rotated in at Rugby Park after the Progres game last week and is likely to do so again on Sunday. The back-line was not rotated after Progres but Katic and Flanagan will be conscious of the competition and it wouldn't be a surprise to see Barisic and Edmundson start in a home game where we will dominate the ball. Helander didn't make the bench in Jutland and Gerrard has been wise not to throw him in and risk damaging his reputation before he is fit and ready. Davis is likely to return to the three in midfield but Kamara offered the fans a reminder of his quality and class in Denmark and this will surely leave Gerrard with another headache. Arfield will always keep his place unless he is unavailable but Jones can rightly feel under threat in a position with no stand-out player as of yet. The addition of Brandon Barker from Man City is likely to have more to do with opportunism than a feeling that he will significantly improve the team, but it will nevertheless make a few nervous. In any case, Ojo is likely to step in for Jones and this is another example of a position the club now have enough depth in to allow for fresh legs to be brought in after a European game. Defoe may also rotate back in after Morelos starred midweek and the option of bringing in a fresh striker after European excursions is brand new to Gerrard and could be a crucial factor in this league campaign. As important a player as Morelos is, he isn't the fittest player in the world and the aerially dominant Darren McGregor will not relish the prospect of facing a fresh and hungry Jermaine Defoe who scores his goals on the deck.
Predicted Line-up (4-3-2-1):
Predicted Score - Rangers 2-0 Hibs
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