MARIUS ZALIUKAS is an enigma all on his own, a fact perfectly illustrated in Hearts’ Scottish Communities League Cup victory over Livingston last night. The Tynecastle captain was responsible for gifting the visitors an equaliser but by full-time had supporters chanting his name after scoring twice to secure Hearts’ progress to the quarter-finals.
After 23 attempts at goal, ten on target and 13 corners, there was little argument that the hosts merited their win despite a commendable Livingston performance. But another Zaliukas mistake had made their task unnecessarily difficult. Danny Grainger opened the scoring approaching half-time before Zaliukas dithered and was dispossessed by Livingston’s industrious forward Marc McNulty, who went on to score on 56 minutes. The Lithuanian then scored two goals of his own to atone for his mistake and prompt a chorus in his honour from the Wheatfield Stand.
John McGlynn, the Hearts manager, was a relieved figure at full-time. He sought to accentuate the positives and praised Zaliukas for his character rather than focus on the latest aberration. McGlynn admitted he has to take the good with the bad when it comes to the Lithuanian internationalist. “He does so many good things but he has these wee hiccups in there every now and again. You’ve just got to accept it,” he explained. “He rose to the challenge to get the team into the next round, coming up with the two goals.
“Marius showed character because he made a mistake which cost us a goal in a game where we should never have got ourselves into that kind of situation. We were well on top and we deserved to be in front. As long we stayed disciplined and didn’t make a mistake, I couldn’t see Livingston coming back into it. But we made a mistake, so everyone then has to show a bit of character, including Marius. To be fair to him, he went and scored two goals at the other end.”
Livingston’s performance was both competitive and, at times, attractive on the eye, as you might expect from a John Hughes team. They carried a significant threat up front in 20-year-old McNulty, a pacy striker with intelligent movement and an eye for goal. Behind him was 19-year-old midfielder Stefan Scougall, whose craft was an equally major feature for the West Lothian club on the night.
Indeed, it was Scougall and McNulty who fashioned the game’s first chance. From the midfielder’s through ball, McNulty guided a left-footed shot from a tight angle wide of goal in the ninth minute. Andy McNeil, the visiting goalkeeper, then held efforts from Hearts’ Scott Robinson and Arvydas Novikovas, whilst the reinstated Andy Driver had one off target.
McNeil twice denied Robinson in quick succession, blocking the midfielder’s header and shot as Hearts increased the pressure. However, Livingston replied when Anthony Andreu’s powerful 20-yard drive brought a fingertip save from Jamie MacDonald in the Hearts goal.
It wasn’t until the final minute of the first period that the deadlock was broken. Grainger collected a clearance from defence and planted it beyond McNeil via a rather significant deflection off a Livingston defender. The Englishman instantly turned and ran towards a Hearts fan in the Wheatfield Stand, aiming a pointed finger in a retort at some earlier criticism.
Novikovas passed up a fine chance from Robinson’s cross early in the second period, with the rain by now torrential in Gorgie. Then came Zaliukas’ moment of embarrassment. He was caught in possession by McNulty 35 yards from goal and could only watch in anguish as the striker sped off to dispatch a sublime finish high beyond MacDonald. The goalkeeper screamed in his captain’s ear as Zaliukas went to retrieve the ball from the net, and few could blame him.
The Lithuanian’s slip gifted Ayr United an equaliser at the same stage of last season’s League Cup and ultimately contributed to Hearts’ elimination that night. As McNulty celebrated in front of a lively, 800-strong Livingston support, it seemed no lessons had been learned from that evening at Somerset Park.
However, Zaliukas redeemed himself with two goals to put this tie beyond Livingston. First, he rammed the ball home after Novikovas’ shot from Ryan Stevenson’s corner was blocked. Then, four minutes later, the defender headed another Stevenson corner into the net at the near post to end doubt over who would progress to the quarter-finals. He didn’t do much in the way of celebrating.