Hibs boss Jack Ross has been keen to point out he knows where Celtic’s weaknesses lie and how he can expose them in the build up to tonight’s clash at Easter Road. Yet it’s one thing to pinpoint weaknesses it’s something altogether different to exploit them.
As Celtic made a stuttering start to the season, Hibs flew out the traps. An opening day win over Motherwell at Fir Park kick started an unbeaten domestic run that stretched across Premiership and League Cup ties from the first day in August until the end of September.
In that time the Leith side went nine undefeated, and even when they eventually went down 2-1 at Ibrox to see that run end there were mitigating circumstances that saw Ross and his side emerge from that defeat with a certain amount of credit despite the result.
A Ryan Porteous red card seemed harsh at the time, especially considering theRangers John Lundstram committed a near identical offence yet escaped without even the award of a free kick never mind censure. Yet it was probably that moment and the fall out from it that knocked Hibs off kilter.
Rumours emanating from Easter Road spoke of displeasure amongst the Hibs squad at a lack of support shown by Ross towards Porteous following that sending off and a hastily arranged meeting with senior players to quell the upset soon followed. Whether that was accurate or if it had an impact on squad harmony or not, it hasn’t exactly stopped the wheels coming off for Jack Ross. As following the defeat at Ibrox there came further losses, and surprising ones at that, and all without the excuse of playing two thirds of a game with 10 men as they had at Ibrox.
As Celtic started to get into a grove Hibs started to wobble. The Celts have now won six of nine league games, and in those wins the opposition have failed to score in five out of those six. With the Carter Vickers and Starfelt partnership starting to bed in and Joe Hart looking steady behind them, Celtic look more secure at the back and that has allowed the security for the attacking players to come to the fore, with Jota, Kyogo and now Giorgos Giakoumakis finding scoring form. And with players returning from injury and other finding confidence Celtic seem in the ascendancy ahead of tonight’s game.
Meanwhile Hibs fell to a heavy 3-0 home defeat to Dundee United before losing to an out of form Aberdeen and one operating a patchwork backline that even saw Scott Brown have to slot in at central defence.
In these last two encounters Hibs have registered a solitary shot on target and a mere four in total over their last three. As such if Jack Ross thinks he knows where Celtic’s weaknesses lie, it may not do him much good if he can’t get his own side into the attacking positions to take advantage.
Hibs natives are already growing restless and if Celtic can get their noses in front tonight the displeasure from the stands may start early and for a team now lacking in confidence that could only be a good thing for Celtic.
Many in the Hibs support already believe the team and manager have limited their game plans to long balls and flick ons, and without a focal point like the injured Christian Doidge to take advantage, Hibs are looking limited to a gameplan that seems to amount to getting those knock-ons to reach the impressive Martin Boyle and hope the Australian attacker can produce a bit of magic.
He of course is capable and Celtic will need to be wary, but it’s not exactly a gameplan to fear when it is so one-dimensional. Kevin Nisbet of course is another capable of hitting the net, yet without Doidge alongside him he too has looked out of sorts of late.
Yet despite Celtic growing in confidence and Hibs’ dissipating, recent history is on the side of the Edinburgh club. 2014 was the last time Celtic emerged with a league victory at Easter Road and although it is a worry to think the last player to score in a Celtic league win in Leith was Teemu Pukki, it is actually only seven games due to the time Hibs spent out of the top flight. That said, it remains a record we should be far from proud of. Of the current Celtic squad only Nir Bitton knows what it’s like to win a league game for Celtic at Easter Road. This is what it looks like folks…
It does however seem a good time to be facing Hibs and remove another away day hoodoo off our backs. Had we been facing the confident Hibs side of just a few short weeks ago there would have been cause for concern, especially given our own stuttering start. However now the tables appear to have turned. Celtic have momentum and Hibs don’t have their troubles to seek.
Celtic have an excellent opportunity to show we can exploit Hibs weaknesses and ensure, despite the claims of Jack Ross to know our Achilles heel, we too can target theirs.
A quick look to their previous two losses shows a Hibs side who when pressed from the front, have a backline shaky in possession and likely to lose composure. Dundee United were exemplary in this tactic and Aberdeen still had success despite being a little less disciplined in that approach.
Celtic, particularly in the last two games against Ferencvaros and St Johnstone have looked a team who press with purpose from the front and now do so with more cohesion and structure than had been evident earlier in the season. We also now have the options from the bench to sustain that press throughout the 90 minutes, as we saw from Saturday where the entire front three were replaced and the tired defensive legs of the opposition faced the fresh impetus supplied by the likes of Johnston, Abada and Ajeti.
It is that relentlessness that could be Hibs undoing and Celtic’s key to winning at Easter Road tonight and leave Jack Ross with pressing concerns as to how to counter his own side’s weaknesses before he targets those he perceives to be Celtic’s.