The waiting is almost over. Heart of Midlothian and Hibernian will contest the latest episode of the capital derby for a place in the quarter-final of the William Hill Scottish Cup. Hearts will be looking for revenge after Hibs knocked the Premiership side out the cup at the same stage last season, while Hibs will not want to relinquish their trophy at Tynecastle. Joel Sked picks the key battles which will settle the match.
Alexandros Tziolis v John McGinn
Tziolis has played a little over 125 minutes of football for Hearts, yet fans, players and pundits have been won over by his composure, physicality and intelligence. He’s been the ideal signing for Ian Cathro. Sitting at the base of the midfield he gives he team control both in and out of possession.
It is evident that he has played at the highest level and gleamed a lot of experience and football know-how. Everything he does is with a purpose and at his own pace. The pace he, and therefore the team, wants to play at it. He is another leader, shown by his willingness to tell team mates where to move and who to pass to.
The diminutive John McGinn will be looking to erode the solidity the Greek brings to Hearts’ midfield. The Scotland internationalist is playing at a level or two below where his talent should be shining, which makes this game more special. His character and attitude is such that he will naturally embrace the occasion.
He is a dynamic player who moves really well with the ball, powering past opponents and playing one-twos. The cut-up Tynecastle pitch may hamper such a style, but can McGinn provide the movement to shift Tziolis out of crucial positions? So far Tziolis has strolled through games but the higher tempo may ask more testing questions.
Jamie Walker v Marvin Bartley
The middle of the Tynecastle pitch is likely to resemble a battlefield. It is not in good condition as it is but it will only worsen, especially in the midfield areas, as the key players on either side look to get that precious extra second on the ball which is often so hard to come by in a derby, especially one taking place in Gorgie.
While Hearts appear to have recruited much better than they have in the previous three transfer windows, it is a player who has been at Tynecastle for the duration who will hold the combination to open up Hibs.
Jamie Walker has been in sublime form. He’s scoring goals, creating chances and constantly driving at the opposition. The formation Ian Cathro plays is irrelevant to Walker, he will always seek out space in front of the Hibs defensive line and look to use his skill to evade challenges or slip passes through for team-mates.
What has been most impressive about Walker is his work rate. He has worked hard on his conditioning after being hampered by injuries. He appears stronger and more robust with regards to the physical side of the game.
He’ll be up against a formidable opponent in Marvin Bartley. The Bartman, as he is affectionately known, is the perfect enforcer for such an occasion. The Englishman is competent with the ball, but it is what he gives Hibs out of possession which is so crucial.
With his imposing figure and the way he can move around the pitch it can appear Hibs are playing with an extra man. Hearts’ most talented players will look to play in central areas. If he has a good game then the home side will find it hard to spring open a defence which has at times bordered on impenetrable.
Aaron Hughes & Tasos Avlonitis v Jason Cummings & Grant Holt
The likelihood is that Ian Cathro will stick with the same back four as the one which kept a clean sheet against Motherwell. It will only be the second time that Aaron Hughes and Tasos Avlonitis have lined up together. That may be of interest to the Hibs forwards.
In terms of goals Hearts have been one of the teams to watch this season. They have scored the second most in the league but have been uncharacteristically porous at the back. Cathro and assistant Austin McPhee will be hoping their experienced, no nonsense centre back partnership will see the tightening up of the defence.
The litmus test will arrive in little and large combination Cummings and Holt. Holt is bound to play as a focal point, especially when the game becomes too harum-scarum and bogged down. While Cummings has been criticised for his all-round play, something Kevin Thomson raised in his Scotsman column, but he will thrive playing with the Englishman, especially at Tynecastle. He has a fine goalscoring record against the club who released him as a youth.
Can his cunning prove illusive against Hughes’ nous? Can Avlonitis, who has played in Greek derbies, handle the physicality of Holt?
Esmael Goncalves v Darren McGregor
While they never played in the same St Mirren line-up the duo were team mates. As Esmael Goncalves thrilled the Buddies support to League Cup success, Darren McGregor was recovering from another serious injury.
Their careers have gone in different directions since then. Goncalves has settled down off the pitch, returning to Scotland after spells in Cyprus, Greece and Saudi Arabia. McGregor has overcome injuries to win the player of the season award at Rangers and emerge as a key player at his boyhood club Hibs.
Goncalves was instantly installed in the Hearts starting XI on arrival and displayed his skill, power, strength and goal threat. He will come up against a different beat in McGregor who will not be out-paced or over-powered.
The forward will have to be more cunning in his movement, perhaps trying to stay away from his former team-mate. McGregor, in Paul Hanlon’s expected absence, will have to step up and lead the backline.
Ian Cathro v Neil Lennon
Hearts fans did not approve of Robbie Neilson’s approach to derbies as he tried to play down the occasion and take the emotion out of it. Cathro is the polar opposite. He has spoken passionately about the derby in the build-up, about its feeling and the emotion it provokes, welcoming the pressure it brings. Such an attitude appeals to Hearts fans.
In the opposite dug-out he will come up against a steely opponent who has mixed memories of Tynecastle. Neil Lennon will be impressing on his troops the importance of keeping their wits about them in what is sure to be a tense atmosphere.
Both managers have decisions to make. It is quite difficult to second guess what each manager will do, with both personnel and formation. One thing is for sure both men will be covering every inch of their technical area, pushing their vocal chords to breaking point.
It will be passionate, it will be intense, it should be exciting.