Football: Hibernian deserve to be lauded as favourites

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AT Celtic Park tomorrow Hibernian and Rangers contest the League Cup final, the first of the domestic trophies on offer this season. For Rangers, the holders, the final affords the opportunity to retain the first part of the treble they picked up last season but, given their early season form, they cannot be considered favourites.

Instead, the Edinburgh club take on that mantle and, with his side sitting on top of the Premier Division, Alex Miller, their manager, will be confident it will not prove too heavy a burden.

Hibs won the trophy two years ago, beating Rangers in the semi-final, and Miller believes the addition of key players in Jim Leighton, Kevin McAllister and Michael O'Neill has improved his side.

'They have added experience to the team and given me a greater depth of pool,' he said. 'It is a big thing for the fans to go to a major final and it means a lot to myself and the players.

'Importantly, it demonstrates consistency and Rangers, who have won so much, have been the most consistent club in Scotland in the last five years.'

Miller confirmed that the forward, Darren Jackson, and the defender, Steven Tweed, are both available, having recovered from injury, and he added: 'Jackson is a vital player for us in an attacking sense.'

Tweed will have no less an important role to play, as he is the man most likely to offer a head-to-head challenge against Mark Hateley, the in-form Rangers striker who has demonstrated this season that he is possibly the best striker in Britain at the moment. Miller certainly ranks among his admirers.

'Any youngsters looking for inspiration will find it in Hateley, as well as sheer professionalism. It says a lot for him, with the amount of money he has earned in his career, that he still has the ambition to play at the top level.'

For Miller's counterpart, Walter Smith, the key question is whether or not to bring back Ally McCoist as the partner for Hateley in attack. McCoist has played only a handful of games since returning from the broken leg he suffered while on international duty in Portugal at the tail end of last season.

No one doubts that a fit McCoist, when teamed with Hateley, provides the most potent goal threat in Scotland, and it would take a brave man to bet against McCoist playing.

'Ally would be an important player in anyone's team,' suggested Smith. 'Any player who contributes 49 goals in a season and is then missing leaves a hell of a hole to fill. We have the utmost respect for Hibs going into this game, they have scored more goals than anyone this season while we have conceded more than we would usually.'

The match offers an intriguing contrast in styles between the all- for-one team attitude of Hibernian against a Rangers side for whom one or two players can turn a game with one flash of skill and inspiration.