Hearts v Hibernian: Capital prepares for New Year's derby
|Scottish Championship: Hearts v Hibernian|
|Date: Saturday, 3 January Venue: Tynecastle Stadium, Edinburgh Kick-off: 12:45 GMT|
|Coverage: Listen on BBC Radio Scotland 810MW/DAB/online; updates on BBC Sport website|
Hearts now seem out of reach at the top of the Championship, but Hibernian will still feel that they can at least be overhauled in an individual encounter.
The mood at Easter Road has lifted to such an extent that a trip across Edinburgh carries no trepidation.
A derby match often stands apart from the context of the competition it is played in, but Hibs have cause to feel buoyed ahead of their visit to Tynecastle.
The 4-0 victory over Rangers was comprehensive but also justified. Hibs' opponents were bereft of form, confidence, organisation and any kind of competitive spirit, but the manner in which they were overcome was impressive.
Even a brief revival of the visitors' ambitions at the start of the second half at Easter Road did not provoke the kind of psychological frailties that have often hampered Hibs in the past. Manager Alan Stubbs will contend that there is still much work to be done in the rebuilding job, but it is clear that his influence has begun to bring some self-assurance to the team.
The two Edinburgh sides are the form teams in the division.
Hearts remain the benchmark in the division, on and off the field. There was a sense of Hibs becoming revitalised when it was announced that the club is now free of bank debt and that owner Sir Tom Farmer will make enough of his shares available for fans to buy so they can own up to 51% of the club.
By different means, the two Edinburgh clubs are seeking the same outcome: fan ownership, at least of a significant stake in the respective businesses.
Owner Ann Budge is proving to be a shrewdly impressive figure at the helm of Hearts, helped by the consistent resilience of the team on the field and their march towards the Championship title.
By any measure, Hearts are in command of the division. They top the table by 15 points from Rangers, and 19 points from Hibs in third place. Even Stubbs has conceded that it would take a "catastrophic collapse" for the Tynecastle side to fail to win the title.
Even so, he can assess the progress of his own side when they meet Hearts for the third time this season. Robbie Neilson's side won the first encounter 2-1, but needed an outstanding 40-yard strike from Alim Ozturk in stoppage time to rescue a 1-1 draw when the sides met at Easter Road.
Hearts had dipped below their best in that second meeting, struggling to impose themselves on the tie, but Hibs still lacked belief. They approached the second half with the purpose of defending their lead, and goalkeeper Mark Oxley was time-wasting only moments after the interval.
Neilson's men have continued to be doggedly effective since the derby in October, though. No Championship team has scored more goals this season than Hearts' 46 and no side has conceded fewer than their eight. As well as being unbeaten, they have earned 10 clean sheets and only once in the league have they failed to score.
The statistics could inhibit Hibs, but the evidence of the two games between Hearts and Hibs this season is that the derby match remains a competitive encounter.
Neilson has problems to address, too, since his only fit senior striker is James Keatings, with Osman Sow, Soufian El Hassnaoui and Dale Carrick all currently injured.
He intends to seek alternative options up front during the January transfer window, but Keatings has scored in each of his last four games and has thrived with the responsibility of being the team's first-choice forward.
Hibs have flourishing players, too, in Scott Robertson, Liam Craig and the inventive, dynamic and potentially match-winning Scott Allan.
The three players make up the foundation of the Hibs midfield, with Danny Handling playing at the top of a diamond shape behind two strikers. The formation demands much of the full-backs who, along with the strikers, need to supply width, but David Gray and Lewis Stevenson have been willing and effective this season.
Hearts have a style and philosophy that Neilson and director of football Craig Levein want to become established at the club. It prioritises possession and composed football, and seeks to make the most of the attack options provided by the three players who line up behind the main striker.
In midfield, Morgaro Gomis dictates the tempo and the thrust of the side's passing, as well as holding its shape alongside Prince Buaben. There is a solid base in defence, too, with Danny Wilson and Ozturk strong in the centre and Callum Paterson being intrepid and athletic at right-back, where he still provides a goalscoring threat.
Hearts have scored in all of their home games this season and will be urged on a raucous home crowd. Hibs are not travelling across the city in a feeble frame of mind, though.
Even if a victory over the rivals would not drastically alter the dynamic of the title race, it would emphasise that Hibs are growing strong under Stubbs and will approach the play-offs with relish.
The hosts have been, though, a side apart this season, and the derby matches tend to sharpen their competitive instincts. Hearts have lost only 10 of their last 45 meetings with Hibs and have looked imperious this season.
Tynecastle is likely to bear witness to another resonating encounter.