ROMELU LUKAKU is a class above your average Scottish Premiership striker. Hearts will be thankful his appearance at Tynecastle yesterday was merely a one-off. The £28 million Everton forward is not only built like a vending machine, he carries a level of touch and awareness far beyond anything Hearts will encounter in Scotland’s top flight this season.
He strolled out of the Gorgie ground last night after blasting a hat-trick in Everton’s rampaging 3-1 win. Young Hearts defenders like Jordan McGhee, Callum Paterson, Kevin McHattie and Alim Ozturk would have learned much trying to contain one of Britain’s most dangerous strikers, yet Lukaku is only 22 himself.
The victory didn’t flatter Everton, whose passing ability, tempo and aggression shone through almost from the first whistle. Hearts opened the scoring through a fine Paterson header but the Merseysiders then took command of this pre-season friendly – no-one more so than Lukaku. It was the last chance for Robbie Neilson to hone his team before competitive games begin. Lukaku wasn’t interested. He was in Scotland on his own mission.
“It was a good experience but it was tough. You can see the difference,” said Paterson. “Everton have fully-fledged internationals with hundreds of games for their clubs. They’re all experienced and it was a massive difference. It’s a good indicator of where we stand and hopefully we can push on from this game.”
Paterson’s back-post header from Kevin McHattie’s corner on nine minutes put the hosts ahead. Neilson had employed an unusual 3-4-2-1 formation, with Paterson and McHattie as wing-backs. Brazilian centre-half Igor Rossi made his first appearance in maroon in a three-man defence alongside Alim Ozturk and Jordan McGhee. Paterson’s goal seemed like an ideal start.
“One of my strengths is heading the ball. I had Leon Osman marking me so I was thankful for that,” he smiled. “I was just in the right place at the right time. Kev’s ball was good as well. You play against big players, like big Colin Nish, but then to play against players like Everton had is a totally different story. They’re stronger and bigger.
Lukaku stroked home a penalty equaliser on 18 minutes after referee Willie Collum irked the Tynecastle support by awarding handball against Ozturk. The Turk protested to no avail. Lukaku claimed his second in the 35th minute when Kevin Mirallas fed Seamus Coleman for a low cutback which the striker dispatched low into Alexander’s net with a first-time effort. There were sporadic breaks forward for Hearts and Jamie Walker tested Tim Howard with a 25-yard attempt before half-time.
Hearts reverted to a flat back four during the interval after enduring an uneasy first-half defensively. Nonetheless, they conceded a third goal just three minutes after the restart. McHattie tripped Mirallas inside the penalty box and Lukaku gratefully converted his second penalty of the afternoon. Thereafter, the English Premier League club were content to keep the ball, although the effort of the hosts was notable as they harried and chased.
Neil Alexander’s one-handed diving save prevented Lukaku’s fourth on 56 minutes and the keeper denied the same player again with an instinctive parry 15 minutes later. There was also an incisive run by the Everton substitute Tom Cleverley, who exchanged passes with Steven Naismith before rattling a high attempt into the side netting.
The onlooking Alex Young, paraded trackside before kick-off, would have noticed the difference in standard. Neilson certainly did but felt Everton’s dominance gives Hearts something to aspire to.
“It was pleasing Everton came up and put out a full-strength squad,” he said. “It’s great that our players now realise how far they’ve got to go. They had a good season last year but to get anywhere near the level of the Everton guys, you need to keep working hard and doing the right things.
“I thought we passed the ball quite well at the start, then we got the goal and then lost a goal. It became difficult because they started pressing us quite high and aggressively. They have guys with 70, 80, 90 caps for England and players worth £20m and £30m. For us to compete at all against them is great.”
Paterson was more specific when asked what a good season would entail for Hearts. “The top four has got to be the aim. That would be a success,” said the full-back. “Anything below top six wouldn’t be a success. We’re aiming for the top six after how we applied ourselves last season. Hopefully, we can go even further. We’ve added a couple of players and we want to build on what we did last year.”
The words of Roberto Martinez certainly offered plenty encouragement. Everton’s manager is a relentlessly positive figure who has transformed the mentality at Goodison. He knew his team were on a different level to Hearts but still had the class to accentuate the good things he detected at Tynecastle.
“I’m very impressed, I must admit. I love teams that are brave, I love teams that want to play and that are flexible tactically,” he said. “I know Hearts have four or five important players injured but you can see they work with real confidence and they have a winning mentality. When you get promoted, you carry that confidence although you’re going into the unknown a little bit. I think they’re going to do really well.
“I’m nobody to judge another manager but I’ve been impressed with the new ideas Robbie Neilson brings. You can see those ideas reflected in the way the team plays. That’s always a big strength in any manager. He’s got the football club very stable and I think the structure of the club reflects his personality.
“Hearts have a terrific platform for the future.”
Hearts (3-4-2-1): Alexander (Hamilton 77); Ozturk (King 46), McGhee, Rossi (L Smith 69); Paterson, McKirdy (Buchanan 78), Gomis (Anderson 67), McHattie; Walker (Oliver 78), Nicholson; Sow (Reilly 65).
Everton (4-2-3-1): Howard; Coleman, Stones, Jagielka, Baines (Oviedo 64); McCarthy (Cleverley 46), Barry; Mirallas (Dowell 83), Kone (Barkley 78), Osman; Lukaku (Naismith 78). Subs: Robles, Browning, Pennington, McAleny, Ledson, Robinson.
Referee: Willie Collum.