Austin MacPhee reacts to Hearts’ Betfred Cup semi-final defeat and explains team selection
Caretaker rues injury to Glenn Whelan and loss of goal moments before the break
Austin MacPhee rued the double first-half blow that he felt killed Hearts’ prospects of a Betfred Cup semi-final upset against Rangers on Sunday.
The beleaguered Edinburgh side lost 3-0 at Hampden following a goal just before half-time from Filip Helander and a second-half double from Alfredo Morelos.
MacPhee, taking charge of Hearts on a caretaker basis just three days after the sacking of manager Craig Levein, lamented the loss of midfield linchpin Glenn Whelan to a hamstring injury midway through the first half which he felt weakened his side at a time when they were keeping Rangers at bay.
And just as it looked like they might be about to get to half-time at 0-0 and “regroup” at the break before introducing some high-profile attacking players from the subs’ bench, they lost the opening goal in the final minute of the half.
“It was disappointing,” said MacPhee. “We knew everything had to go our way if we were to get a result but to lose Glenn so early... he’s a very important and experienced player for us and then we lost the goal just before half time. Rangers dominated first-half possession and most of our possession was in our own half but we hoped we could get in and regroup and we planned to add Jamie Walker and Steven Naismith to the team later on as they’re returning from injury, as well as having have Uche (Ikpeazu) strong at the end of the game but I had to introduce him early.”
MacPhee made the surprise decision to drop Ikpeazu to the bench, with Steven MacLean spearheading the attack in a 4-3-3 formation. Craig Wighton was drafted in for his first competitive appearance since the Scottish Cup final more than five months ago and started on the right flank. After having his gameplan disrupted by Whelan’s injury, MacPhee then had to make a second substitution before the break when he took MacLean off and replaced him with Ikpeazu after the veteran ran the risk of being sent off following an early booking.
It all contrived to ruin his hopes of keeping the game tight in the early exchanges before introducing Ikpeazu plus Walker and Naismith, who are just returning from long-term injury, to try and hurt Rangers in the closing stages.
Asked, with the benefit of hindsight, if he would have started Ikpeazu, MacPhee said: “I'm not sure. Steven MacLean played a very important role in that system in the Scottish Cup final.
“Today we didn't quite get high enough up the pitch. Steven understands that role.
“Rangers very quickly overloaded on the sides of the pitch which meant Craig had to be a bit deeper and we couldn't really get out. The plan was that Steven was on the pitch, we kept the game tight in the early stages then we introduced these players who can affect the game more in the attacking end. We knew that down the stretch it's difficult for Uche at times with the amount of work he would have to do. We were only one minute away from getting to half-time.”
In addition to losing Whelan, MacPhee then lost Michael Smith to a quad muscle injury while Hearts trailed 2-0 in the second half. The caretaker is hopeful that neither problem is particularly serious. “Glenn is such an experienced player, he will know his body well. He not one to come off the pitch. I'd imagine he’ll have a scan in the morning and I hope it's not serious, the same with Michael Smith.”
It remains to be seen when Hearts will appoint a permanent successor to Levein. When asked if he expects to remain in charge for Saturday’s bottom-of-the-table clash with St Mirren at Tynecastle, MacPhee said: “I'll meet with Ann (Budge) in the morning, which was scheduled anyway.
“We'll obviously talk about the structure in the next week but I would imagine so.”