Hearts are one step closer to ending a 56-year wait for the League Cup after a dramatic night at Tynecastle Park. Drawing 2-2 with Motherwell and seemingly destined for extra-time, the hosts forced two late goals to secure a semi-final place against Celtic next month.
Olly Lee and Steven Naismith scored the decisive goals on 88 and 90 minutes respectively. That finished off a strong Hearts performance and also put paid to Motherwell’s resilience. They had taken an early lead through Curtis Main’s penalty and, after Steven MacLean and Peter Haring overturned the deficit for Hearts, levelled the scoreline at 2-2 through Ryan Bowman’s dipping 20-yard volley.
Not since 1962 have Hearts taken the League Cup back to Edinburgh. The tournament is currently sponsored by Betfred and there may be a few wagers on those in maroon following this quarter-final tie. Motherwell deserved great credit for their contribution and were undone only by some clinical late finishing by Lee and Naismith.
Uche Ikpeazu was again an injury absentee for the hosts as he continues recovering from a foot injury sustained against Motherwell at Fir Park earlier this month. Arnaud Djoum and Callumn Morrison were both restored to what was an attack-minded line-up named by the Hearts manager Craig Levein. He was eager to lead his club to a semi-final for the first time in five years.
In their way were an inconsistent, but nonetheless dangerous Lanarkshire squad still smarting from losing 1-0 when these teams last met. The decisive goal that afternoon came after a defensive mix-up and, provided a repeat could be avoided at Tynecastle, manager Stephen Robinson would have been confident of causing a slight cup upset. He welcomed Main back after the striker missed the weekend defeat at Aberdeen to attend the birth of his child.
Rain showers ensured the pitch was glistening and slick for kick-off. After failing to score in the league against Livingston here on Saturday, Hearts were eager to seize the early initiative. It took two goal-line clearances inside the first three minutes to deny them an opening goal. First, Naismith’s header from Lee’s corner was nodded behind by Main on the post. From the resultant second corner, Haring’s headed attempt was destined for the same area until Chris Cadden intervened at the last second.
Motherwell’s response was emphatic. They took the lead on 12 minutes from the penalty spot after the Hearts defender Jimmy Dunne was judged to have handled following Gael Bigirimana’s deep free-kick into the area. Main confidently stroked the spot-kick to Zdenek Zlamal’s left. The visitors now had a real cause to play for, and they pressed and harried their hosts with relentless vigour.
Those in maroon looked unsettled for 15 minutes or so, struggling to find consistent passing rhythm due to harassment from opponents flying into tackles at will. They composed themselves and an impressive flowing move just after the half-hour led to Michael Smith’s driven low cross, which the onrushing MacLean managed to clip over the crossbar from close range as he slid in.
At the other end, Zlamal produced a vital save from Main’s shot at a tight angle. That was to prove an important stop given Hearts restored parity just moments later. By now they were passing the ball with better accuracy. Morrison’s delivery from the right found Naismith at the back post for a cushioned header down towards MacLean. The veteran forward made no mistake with a straightforward conversion from a few yards.
Motherwell were pressed back towards the end of the first 45 minutes. Naismith’s header from Demetri Mitchell’s cross ought to have put his team in front, but the ball rose slightly over Trevor Carson’s crossbar. Main was then off target from Cadden’s delivery as an end-to-end first period drew to a close.
There was no relent in the tempo of this encounter after the break. Both teams sensed this quarter-final was there for the taking. Hearts were gaining momentum and forcing the issue. From another Morrison cross, Haring headed narrowly wide just after the hour mark. The Austrian did not have long to wait to etch his name on the scoresheet.
Home pressure paid off on 64 minutes when, after Mitchell’s deflected effort was fired goalwards by John Souttar, Haring slid in to prod the ball into the net from around six yards. It was the goal the Hearts support had waited for as their side edged their noses in front and, by now, were the team in command.
Morrison, the 19-year-old winger, continued to be a perennial danger down the right flank with cross after cross into the danger area. He could have finished the tie as a contest after an intelligent touch and through pass from MacLean. Bearing down on goal, the youngster’s left-footed shot was blocked by Carson’s legs.
Motherwell knew they had to take risks to stay in the competition and that let to a breathless and frenetic final period. As time wore on, more and more claret-and-amber shirts poured forward into the Hearts half. Main was off target from substitute Elliott Frear’s cross before the equaliser arrived. And it was a very memorable strike to boot. Liam Donnelly’s powerful forward header set Bowman off and running, and he lashed a blistering volley looping over Zlamal into the corner of the net – sparking wild celebrations from the travelling support.
Still Hearts refused to give up. Two minutes from the end of regulation time, they forced a third goal. It was no surprise to see Lee claiming it. He positioned himself 18 yards out for Michael Smith to cut the ball back from the right flank, and the English midfielder dispatched a fine finish across the diving Carson into the far corner with his right foot.
With that, Hearts were heading to the last four. Just to make sure, the tireless Naismith added a fourth in stoppage-time. He sprinted onto Lee’s clearance and outpaced the Motherwell defence to place a composed shot past Carson. A party atmosphere enveloped Tynecastle for the final few moments as the home support revelled in the fact their team were in the last four of the Betfred Cup.
Hearts (4-3-3): Zlamal; M Smith, Souttar, Dunne, Mitchell; Lee (Bozanic 90), Haring, Djoum; Morrison (Dikamona 85), MacLean (Amankwaa 90), Naismith. Unused subs: Doyle, Garuccio, McDonald, Mulraney.
Motherwell (3-5-2): Carson; Aldred, McHugh, Donnelly; Cadden, Grimshaw, Campbell (Johnson 74), Bigirimana (Frear 66), Tait; Main, Bowman. Unused subs: Turnbull, Taylor-Sinclair, Gillespie, Maguire, Mbulu.
Referee; W Collum