Five days and counting. Hearts build up to Saturday’s William Hill Scottish Cup Final against Celtic at Hampden began in earnest today with manager Craig Levein taking his squad to St Andrews for three days before returning to the capital later this week.
Hearts brought the curtain down on a disappointing Ladbrokes Premiership campaign yesterday with a narrow defeat at the hands of next week’s opponents but with both Celtic and Hearts fielding ‘fringe’ players there were no thoughts about Sunday’s game being a dress-rehearsal for the cup final.
Leven was pleased with the performances of his youngsters yesterday, but the Hearts manager has plenty of food for thought whilst at St Andrews. He’ll be giving careful consideration to what will be his cup final team although the injuries which have decimated his squad throughout season 2018/19 will undoubtedly play a factor in his team for Hampden.
In goal, Levein is likely to opt for Bobby Zlamal. The Czech stopper was dropped back in December following a howler in the 5-0 hammering from Livingston but regained his place when his replacement Colin Doyle committed an even bigger howler at Motherwell. On his day Zlamal has produced some brilliant saves but he is also prone to the odd gaffe and his positioning for Celtic’s opening goal on Sunday was questionable. But I expect Zlamal to be number one for Hampden.
The defence is another area where Hearts have occasionally looked suspect this season. Again, injuries to captain Christophe Berra, John Souttar, Michael Smith and Demetri Mitchell have affected the team. Berra hasn’t looked as commanding since he returned from eight weeks out prior to Christmas and Souttar appears uncertain at times. Conor Shaughnessy doesn’t inspire confidence and Clevid Dikamona, Jamie Brandon and Bobby Burns have flitted in and out of the Hearts team this season. Much depends on whether Levein opts for three or four at the back on Saturday, but I expect Berra – who didn’t play yesterday – Souttar and Smith – who both played but were taken off – to feature. The wide-open space of Hampden may suit Bobby Burns if Levein opts for four at the back.
In midfield it’s anybody’s guess who will line up. Again, injuries are a factor. Peter Haring was an influential player during Hearts impressive start to the season but his long-term lay-off has negated this influence somewhat. Haring remains doubtful for Saturday. Olly Lee became Hearts latest injury casualty when he hobbled off at Celtic Park and remains a huge doubt for Saturday. However, Lee may well have been omitted from Levein’s starting eleven in any case. Sean Clare seems certain to start and every chance will be given to Arnaud Djoum, another injury victim. Jake Mulraney’s recent impressive performances will almost certainly be rewarded with a starting place and there’s an argument for Ryan Edwards to start the game, given his ability to close players down. Of the others, Oliver Bozanic will surely only start the final if others succumb to injury while Harry Cochrane is another consideration although the 17-year-old missed the Celtic game yesterday due to illness. Levein is likely to opt for experience over youth for such a big game at the National Stadium.
Given this, it’s possible the Hearts manager may opt to play veteran Steven MacLean in a holding position. The forward, who turns 37 in August, has a wealth of experience and scored for St Johnstone in the 2014 final when they lifted the trophy after beating Dundee United 2-0.
Up front, much depends on the fitness of Uche Ikpeazu. The big striker has missed the last few games due to a hamstring injury but Levein is hopeful the Englishman will be fine for Saturday. With Steven Naismith almost certainly ruled out Ikpeazu will be Hearts main goal threat and Hearts hopes of lifting a fourth Scottish Cup in 21 years may well depend on the big man’s fitness.
If Uche isn’t ‘gonnae get ye’ then it may well fall to Craig Wighton to take the centre forward’s responsibility to get goals. Wighton did well against the champions on Sunday – he was involved in the build up to Hearts goal – but the former Dundee striker has still to score a first team goal in maroon and it’s difficult to see him breaking his duck at Hampden.
Little wonder, then, that Craig Levein will be taking several large packs of cotton wool with the team to St Andrews. He has much thinking to do between now and Saturday.