IT may only be the second league match of the season but there is already plenty riding on Rangers versus Hibs at Ibrox tomorrow. Both sides will be determined to put down an early marker given they will likely find themselves battling it out in that mini-group of teams just behind Celtic for most of the season. It really ought to be an intriguing battle.
I was at Easter Road last weekend to watch Hibs’ first league game back in the top flight for three seasons and was thoroughly impressed with how they played. Even when Partick Thistle went in front early on in the game Hibs didn’t panic. By the end they were comfortable winners.
There is a big expectation from their support so the players know they have to keep delivering. There were 17,000 there last weekend and, although they’ve had to be patient at times in the last few years, the Hibs fans know they have a strong squad now and expect them to consistently reach certain standards.
Neil Lennon will demand as much, too. It may have surprised a few people when he took that job last summer but he is still a very ambitious manager and one who is constantly demanding from his players.
There is little chance of anyone slacking off or coasting through on his watch. I noticed in the match programme last week he revealed he had given his players targets for the season so every one of them now knows what they need to do.
Hibs may be recently-promoted from the Championship but they have a squad built for the Premiership. I thought Simon Murray led the line diligently against Thistle and his workrate was incredible, while Martin Boyle and John McGinn also impressed me.
The new signings all look like they can make a difference, too. There is already a belief there that Hibs can go on and do something special this season. In my opinion they have a good enough squad to comfortably finish in the top half of the table.
They would have been expected to beat Ayr United the other night in the Betfred Cup but to run in another five goals shows how well they are playing. Anthony Stokes getting two on his first start since rejoining the club won’t have done his confidence any harm either.
They only lost one game at Easter Road last year and their home form will probably be just as impressive this season. They won’t lose many games in front of their own fans.
They won’t fear going to Ibrox either or consider themselves underdogs in this one. They will be going there to win. Lennon will have instilled that mentality in his players and there is no reason why they can’t go there and get a result against a Rangers side still finding their feet.
Lennon will be massively pumped up for it, of course. I saw first hand as a player how much he loved playing against Rangers, especially at Ibrox, and you know he’s going to thrive in the atmosphere. He’s not with Celtic now, of course, and it’s not an Old Firm game but I wouldn’t be surprised if Neil has been looking forward to this game for quite some time. If he can get his players in a similar frame of mind then Hibs will bursting to get out that tunnel.
Their opponents remain very much a work-in-progress. I watched Rangers’ game versus Motherwell last weekend and there were certainly positive aspects for Pedro Caixinha to take from the game.
Bruno Alves strolled through it at the back and already looks like he could be a key signing. Graham Dorrans was excellent and took his goals well, while Josh Windass looks like a different person with a really strong performance down the left.
Starting the season away from home is never easy so you have to give them plaudits for winning the match.
For me, though, they still looked light up front. I’m not really sure what to make of Eduardo Herrera who seemed to really struggle to get into the game.
I don’t know what he is offering there. And towards the end Rangers looked vulnerable at the back. Wes Foderingham made a couple of decent saves but a more clinical team than Motherwell would have punished them and taken at least a point.
I don’t see Murray, Stokes, Boyle etc being as wasteful tomorrow if similar opportunities come their way. Hibs are undoubtedly a better team than Motherwell so it will be interesting to see if Rangers can step it up to another level.
They will be at home and backed by the best part of 50,000 fans so it is shaping up to be a cracking contest. By the end of it we may have a better idea of just how these two teams will get on this season.
Listen to the Herald Sport podcast: We discuss Kieran Tierney’s Celtic future, Rangers battering Dunfermline and ponder a Motherwell cup victory.