Hibernian: Alan Stubbs beginning to hit the right spot at Easter Road
|Scottish Championship: Rangers v Hibernian|
|Venue: Ibrox Stadium, Glasgow. Date: Friday 13 February 2015. Kick-off 19:45 GMT|
|Coverage: Live on BBC Radio Scotland 810MW/DAB/online; live text commentary on BBC Sport website|
Hearts are likely to remain out of reach at the top of the Championship but Hibernian's renaissance is impressive on its own merits.
This was a club that was in a state of disarray when Alan Stubbs arrived last summer for his first job in management.
His initial task was to sift through the debris of the club's relegation season. Only 11 first-team players were registered, and four of them soon departed.
Stubbs, in effect, was having to rebuild the team from the foundations up.
The extent of the challenge was its attraction, though. Having worked as a youth coach and then with the reserve team at Everton, Stubbs understood the basis of the job he was taking on: player as well as team development.
He signed wisely, opting for experience, but also, and crucially, potential. Stubbs has built a team at Easter Road that combines hunger and ambition with an element of nous.
There have still been occasions this season when Hibs have seemed psychologically flawed - not least when they set about protecting a one-goal lead over Hearts by time-wasting from the beginning of the second-half onwards before eventually conceding - but mentality is often the last piece to fall into place.
It has been a lengthy process, and one that is still ongoing, but time is seldom an ally in football.
Hearts were too well advanced in their restructuring process and they have left the rest of the division in their wake. Rangers' continuing collapse provides Hibs with additional purpose, though, since the Easter Road side can overtake them if they win at Ibrox on Friday night.
Finishing second in the Championship allows for more preparation time ahead of the play-offs. The fitness of the Hibs players has improved significantly under the guidance of the head of sports science, Craig Flannigan. If there is a symbol of the growing revival of Hibs, it is is found in the sleek, elusive figure of Scott Allan.
A midfielder of talent and guile, Allan promised much when he left Dundee United for West Bromwich Albion, but he encountered only frustration during two years in England. His fitness and confidence need to be carefully nurtured, and Stubbs has understood the need to cajole the best out of the player when other managers have sought to be more blunt.
The reward has been a period of sustained excellence from Allan. His ability to flit around the field into pockets of space then pass the ball with range and imagination have brought a cutting edge to Hibs' play. The team has a strong midfield core, with Scott Robertson and Liam Craig working tirelessly in the centre of the pitch.
Allan has been granted even more freedom of expression since the arrival last month of Fraser Fyvie - another midfielder whose career seemed to be on an inexorable rise when he left Aberdeen for Wigan Athletic but has returned to Scotland looking to regroup.
Stubbs is carefully piecing his team together. The turnaround is encouraging, and it reached its peak in the 4-0 victory over Rangers at Easter Road last December.
The visitors were shellshocked before they even arrived, since events off the field had begun to inflict themselves upon the squad and it was the first game since Ally McCoist had been placed on gardening leave, but Hibs were still expressive and buoyant.
When the full-backs, David Gray and Lewis Stevenson, are surging forward, and the midfield is both solid and ambitious, Hibs look like a team capable of playing a compelling brand of football. Stubbs has also assembled four forwards who will create competition for places that ought to enhance the team's striking edge.
Farid el Alagui, Dominique Malonga, Frank Dja Djedje and Jason Cummings are vying for the two starting places in Stubbs' favoured 4-4-2 diamond formation, but goals can still be spread around the team.
Hibs scored 14 goals in the five games the team played while Malonga was on international duty at the Africa Cup of Nations, while the 5-0 rout of Cowdenbeath last month involved five different scorers, three of them defenders.
There can still be setbacks, and Stubbs concedes that his team has drawn too many matches this season. Hibs remain a work in progress, and the support can be quick to air its grievances.
Booing followed Christian Nade's late equaliser for Raith Rovers at Easter Road, but that is more a measure of the home crowd's desire to return to the top-flight than misgivings about the work Stubbs is carrying out.
In individual matches, Hibs have been competitive with Hearts and too sprightly for Rangers. That ought to result in the team finishing as runners-up this season, but mental frailty has seemed embedded in the psyche of a succession of Hibs teams.
Stubbs is trying to create a different mindset at Easter Road, and will welcome the expectation that comes with the progress he has made.
If he can build on this campaign, keeping the likes of Allan, Dylan McGeouch and Cummings at the club and adding wisely again from the market, Hibs can return stronger and more self-assured.