Friday, August 03, 2012

SPL Preview: Dundee United v Hibs

A nice quiet Scottish football summer draws to an close. A pleasant couple of months they've been, devoted to considered reflection, removed from the hurly-burly, the hysteria and the rancour of the season.

And now it's over. Time for the (fun and) games to begin.

The new season dawns with a TV deal in place, a 12 team SPL, a 30 team SFL, mixed European results and Neil Doncaster and Stewart Regan continuing to career through the corridors of Hampden like the Chuckle Brothers with ADHD.

The more things change, the more the stay the same...

No doubt squabbles will continue, recriminations will still be flung, bickerings shall rumble on.

But we are where we are.

Time to let the football do the talking.

(Question: if Scottish football could actually talk, who would it sound like? Would it offer the urbane witticisms of a Gore Vidal? Or perhaps the yelping inanity of a Billy Dodds? Intriguing.)

To mark the start of the new season I'll be doing a weekly preview of the big game of the weekend. (In this case "big" will based on an entirely subjective list of reasons drafted by me on the back of a 20 pack of Lambert & Butler.)

This week that means assaulting the prism of time. Where would you decide to go to if you travel into the future?

The Scottish Football Blog would go to Dundee this coming Sunday to watch Dundee United play Hibs at Tannadice.

Hibs' last competitive outing ended with them being forced to run round Hampden with their trousers round their ankles.

Having flirted teasingly with competency to scrape through their relegation battle, Pat Fenlon's side combined to make their mark on history by producing one of the most woefully inept cup final displays that Scottish football has ever seen.

For good measure they did that against Hearts.

The mental scars still sting although my physician tells me that 20 years embracing the lifestyle of a Trappist monk will allow my internal organs to recover from my futile attempts to blank out the pain.

Faced with the mammoth task of rebuilding a squad that was coherent only in its incompetence Hibs have done what Hibs always tend to do: made a few signings and then spoken wistfully of not being able to afford jam for their pieces while leaving the job unfinished.

Ben Williams is the latest out to prove that a the goalkeeper's jersey doesn't come with a poisoned chalice.

Tim Clancy has been added as ballast to a listing defence, Paul Cairney will be charged with adding some bite to a weak midfield and another loan deal for Leigh Griffiths provides the net curtains hiding a bare goalscoring store cupboard from prying eyes.

James McPake returns on a permanent deal following his elevation to leader of all Hibernian after offering heart and toil while on loan last season.

Youngsters continue to flit about on the edge of the squad and, although a number of players have been chased up Leith Walk, many of last season's underwhelming performers remain.

All of which speaks of a work in progress at Easter Road. Another season of transition.

Which is fine. Transition from crap to alright is much needed.

The problem for Hibs is that the last two seasons were supposed to be about transition.

They keep messing it up and launching themselves all the way back to square one.

Has Pat Fenlon got it right this time around?

On a good day, with a fair wind - and Hibs fans have to hope that the recruitment drive hasn't yet finished - the new squad looks more competitive.

It doesn't look much more than that yet.

They'll be quickly tested.

The SPL's Swiss scheduling computer can be a cruel mistress.

The first home game of the season throws up an Edinburgh derby.

And on Sunday Hibs face Dundee United.

United should certainly be sharper, last night they were an injury time deflection away from beating Dinamo Moscow.

A two day recovery period and the benefit of some competitive action should be a positive rather than a European hangover at this stage of the season.

United have lost a number of players but Peter Houston's replacements look sound and the midfield and attacking triumvirate of Gary Mackay-Steven, Johnny Russell and Jon Daly - still together for now - look both assured and dangerous.

Hibs look stifled by a lack of midfield incision. Recent friendly games suggest Fenlon might look to overcome that with two wide midfielders (Ivan Sproule, Eoin Doyle or Paul Cairney) and David Wotherspoon linking Griffiths with the midfield.

It's not a plan that inspires much confidence, it also risks isolating Griffiths who begins to wander when hebecomes frustrated.

Griffiths wandering isn't necessarily a bad thing - he's probably better than Doyle, Sproule or Wotherspoon in the roles they've been assigned - but it leaves a vacuum up front, one Hibs aren't fluid enough to fill.

So Sunday looks like pitting a strong midfield against a flimsy midfield, an exciting attack against a disjointed attack.

That means Fenlon's new look defence will be given a robust examination.

The Hibs manager has pitched his rebuilding job as being about the unearthing of strong characters, of creating a team that is difficult to beat.

Given recent traumas that's a sensible enough policy.

He's just got to prove that he's pulled it off now.

Dundee United v Hibs: The odds

Ladbrokes Game On!Ladbrokes offer Dundee United @ 4/6, Hibs @ 4/1 and the draw @ 14/5.

If Hibs are indeed hiding the light of their summer revolution under a bushel then that's quite generous.

On the other hand those odds justify United's status as the favourites to "best of the rest" @ 7/4 in the SPL without Celtic market.

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