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Hughes has Hibs purring

It might lack the global profile of an Old Firm derby encounter - and remains mercifully free of the sectarian baggage which still pervades the Glasgow clubs' meetings - but when Hearts and Hibs square up at Tynecastle this Saturday lunchtime, there will be no disguising the mutual antipathy which exists between these sides, nor their all-consuming desire to gain bragging rights over the other for at least a couple of months.

Indeed, this is a contest with the potential to be a classic given the fluctuating fortunes experienced by the combatants in the current campaign, and the transformation in Hibs' ambitions under the canny stewardship of John Hughes.

Towards the end of last season, they seemed to be resigned to also-ran status in the SPL, but the departure of Mixu Paatelainen has proved the catalyst for a resurgence, which ensures that if Hughes' personnel can overcome their derby opponents they will continue to snap at Celtic's heels.

Furthermore, given the ability at the manager's disposal in the guise of such talented performers as Anthony Stokes, Liam Miller, Derek Riordan and Merouane Zemmama - all of whom have impressed neutrals with their classy football in the present campaign - there is genuine optimism and an air of anticipation amongst the visitors in advance of this contest.

It isn't simply that winning breeds confidence, but the acceptance by their supporters that Hibs have progressed to second in the SPL and have already resisted Rangers in Glasgow, without hitting anything like their best form. Should they do so, it could turn into another traumatic afternoon for the Hearts faithful.

As for the Gorgie-based organisation, Csaba Laszlo's team have recently stumbled from one controversy to another. Off the pitch, there is an air of stagnation, talk of rows over alleged unpaid bonuses and incessant reports of friction between Laszlo and Hearts' cantankerous owner, Vladimir Romanov, who continues to suspect conspiracies around every corner without appreciating the impact on his players of a steady drip-feed of negative publicity for the tabloids.

Thus far, they have managed just two wins in ten league fixtures, and even when they knocked Celtic out of the CIS Insurance Cup last Wednesday, the majority of the post-match headlines revolved around Tony Mowbray's travails rather than focusing on the achievement of the victors.

That is typical of how Hearts, or rather Romanov and his associates, have become their own worst enemies in the last couple of years: the feeling, harboured even by life-long fans, that something nasty is lurking behind the scenes in the shape of the club's steepling overdraft.

The problem for Laszlo is that he has no money to spend when it is patently clear that he requires some fresh striking talent. The supporters have voiced their disapproval at the situation, and even directed some undeserved ire at the captain, Michael Stewart, whose penalty helped beat Celtic but who picked up a knock in the process which ruled him out of last Saturday's defeat at Motherwell.

In some respects, that has been a microcosm of their season - occasional glimpses of promise interspersed with disappointment - and although Stewart will return to the ranks this weekend, it will be in the knowledge that his squad have amassed only nine goals in ten SPL games: a strike rate which will do nothing to dowse the expectations of their rivals on the short journey from Leith.

Hibs, in contrast, possess attacking threats all over the pitch and can point to their stirring performance against Rangers at Ibrox as evidence of their capacity to enter the lion's den without fearing for their survival.

The one cautionary note has been their inability to kill off opponents and Hughes will have been concerned about the length of time it took his charges to edge past nine-man Aberdeen at Easter Road last Saturday.

Yet the plaudits they have earned have been richly deserved, while the fashion in which Hibs have balanced their books during the recession also demonstrates that they merit credit for their transfer dealings.

At the club's most recent AGM, their chairman and former chief executive, Rod Petrie, was in understandably bullish mood, declaring that Hibs' financial performance over the last five years had been "truly exceptional" and it was difficult to disagree, especially when their accounts were placed in the context of the crippling debt which has paralysed Rangers and accumulated around Hearts. Of course, any derby tussle can produce tales of the unexpected and one suspects that the hosts will launch a ferocious onslaught in the early stages. If they can reproduce the commitment and enjoy the same breaks which went their way against Celtic, they will pose a tough proposition for their city adversaries. But at the moment, Hibs are on the crest of a wave and should have ample firepower to maintain their SPL surge.

Hearts v Hibs is live on ESPN UK this Saturday, with coverage starting at 11.45 GMT.


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