Marius ZALIUKAS admits he would relish an all-Edinburgh Scottish Cup final in May.
The Hearts captain will play in the semi-finals of the competition next month for the first time since arriving at the club almost six years ago, after he helped the Tynecastle side past St Mirren on Wednesday to set up a last-four showdown with Celtic at Hampden on Sunday, April 15.
With Hibs facing Aberdeen at the National Stadium 24 hours earlier, Hearts could have the incentive of knowing their city rivals are already waiting for them in the final, and the possibility of an all-Edinburgh showdown certainly gets Zaliukas’ juices flowing.
“It would be unbelievable,” he exclaims, with the use of an unprintable expletive thrown in to add extra effect to just how much the Hearts squad would welcome such a mouth- watering match. However, for such a possibility to arise, Hearts will have to find a way past Celtic, the most formidable side in the country. As a result, of the four teams left in the competition, Hearts are the biggest outsiders with bookmakers to get their hands on the old trophy.
Underdogs or not, Zaliukas, a mainstay of a Hearts side which has generally held its own against Old Firm opposition throughout his time in Edinburgh, simply can’t wait to run out at Hampden against the SPL champions-elect.
“I’ve been here for six seasons now, so I’m excited about my first Scottish Cup semi-final,” says the Lithuanian. “I came just after Hearts won the Scottish Cup in 2006, but back then I was really excited just to be here. Every year we expect to get this far [the semis], but it doesn’t always work like that.
“Now we are there, it’s going to be a brilliant atmosphere against Celtic. A lot of fans will go there and it will be a special day. The cup is more of a sprint than a marathon, so one game can decide everything. We’ve beaten Celtic already this season, but we’re not really thinking about that.”
While Hearts ultimately cruised into the semi-finals with an impressive display in the last hour of the game in Paisley on Wednesday, Paulo Sergio’s men were fortunate to survive a tough opening half-hour. St Mirren thought they had gone ahead through Nigel Hasselbaink, but referee Stevie O’Reilly controversially pulled back play to award a penalty, which Jamie MacDonald duly saved.
It was the pivotal moment in the game, with Hearts eliciting relief firstly from the spot-kick being awarded instead of the goal, and then from the fact it was subsequently saved.
“It was a big relief that Jamie saved the penalty because it was such an important game. I got a slight push, lost my balance and my hand automatically went up. I would have felt guilty but it was a fantastic save from Jamie,” said Zaliukas, before joking: “It was a good call by the referee to give the penalty and not the goal.”
Coach Gary Locke, meanwhile, believes recent results have put Hearts on track to make this season a successful one, rather than the underwhelming one that seemed likely as the team toiled throughout February.
Having won their last two league games to move within a point of fourth-placed Dundee United, Hearts head to Perth today in buoyant mood for their clash with St Johnstone, who trail the Tannadice men only on goal difference. The prospect of Scottish Cup glory merely adds further spice for Locke.
“It could end up being quite a decent season for us after all,” he said. “If we get into the top six it would have to be seen as a success as it’s been a difficult season for the club both on and off the pitch. Having said that, I think a club like ourselves should be challenging for Europe every season. The players will be thinking that if we get into the top six and stay close to St Johnstone and Dundee United, there’s no reason why we can’t put a few more wins together and get a European place.
“A win against St Johnstone would certainly help. The next few games are vital for us because if we can get a few wins, it keeps us right in the mix going into the split when we all still have to play each other again. We could still end up in a decent league position.
“We’ve also got a semi-final to look forward to. We’ve got a big obstacle in the shape of Celtic but, on our day, we’re capable of beating anybody, so it’s a game we’re looking forward to. We’ve got a good squad and a fantastic spirit – all the players just want Hearts to win. I think that was clear to see the other night against St Mirren and over the past few weeks. We’ve been really pleased with the results and performances.”