Alex Tziolis doesn’t seem to do the pass-and-move philosophy. He prefers pass and stroll. With a languid authority which embodied Hearts’ new-found swagger, the giant Greek midfielder dominated Saturday’s 3-0 win at Motherwell.
Pass. Stroll. Break into a trot. Stroll again. Smoke a cigar. Another pass. A shot, a goal and you’re off and running. Tziolis scored on his first Hearts start, while Esmael Goncalves’ late double broke the striker’s duck for his new club. They were just two of seven new signings who started at Fir Park as head coach Ian Cathro’s masterplan continued coming together.
Hearts have now scored seven in their past two fixtures after last Wednesday’s 4-1 defeat of Rangers – a timely upturn before Sunday’s Scottish Cup derby with Hibs. It must be said that Carl McHugh’s 53rd-minute red card for Motherwell swung Saturday’s match in the visitors’ favour.
Seven minutes after McHugh’s dismissal for a dangerous sliding challenge on Don Cowie, Tziolis’ shot from substitute Choulay’s pass deflected off Keith Lasley and looped over Motherwell goalkeeper Craig Samson to break the deadlock.
The Edinburgh club would have settled for a 1-0 scoreline in their fifth game inside 13 days. Goncalves didn’t. He clinically finished a through ball from Choulay on 84 minutes and converted the same player’s cross four minutes later. It was a ruthless exploitation of the extra-man advantage. That the on-loan Choulay had assisted with all three goals was also a salient point.
Tziolis took it all in his stride despite the excitement. A 31-year-old Greek internationalist with 62 caps, he has seen it all before at a much higher level than the Ladbrokes Premiership. He seems immune to pressure, strutting around apparently spraying passes about for fun.
“That’s my style. I play that way. Sometimes I play well, sometimes not so well, but that is my style on the pitch,” he smiled. “Of course, but it is not only about me. The whole team has to be 100 per cent concentrated and make a good game.
“Everybody in the team is happy with another three points. It has been a good week and we are delighted with another win. It is not normal for players to gel so quickly. The first days can be difficult trying to get everybody together but it has been a pleasant surprise for us. There are a lot of new players here but we all feel very comfortable together.”
Tziolis’ composure will be rather useful next week when he encounters an Edinburgh derby for the first time. He has experienced fiery Greek derbies between Panathinaikos and Olympiakos, plus played in World Cups and European Championships. From the evidence of his first two outings in Scotland, he is unlikely to be flustered regardless what happens at Tynecastle.
“To be honest, I don’t feel so much pressure any more,” he shrugged. “For me, these are games to enjoy. They are for players who want to show the quality they have. It’s more like that, than thinking about pressure.
“Of course, I have played in a lot of derby games before. I enjoy the atmosphere of these games. I hope I will enjoy Sunday as well. It’s normal in these situations that people really want to see their team do well.
“In Greece, the passion and atmosphere is really hard. It is the game of the year for the teams, for the supporters. Everyone, the whole country, looks at that game. Like everywhere, derby games are something special.
“Okay, Scottish football is a little bit different to what I am used to. It’s more aggressive. That’s British football but it is no problem. Of course we take confidence from the last two matches. Every time you win a game, you take confidence from it. I know it is a big game on Sunday so I hope these experiences will help us to show the same attitude and get the win.”
He doesn’t appear to be in any doubt about what is expected when Hibs cross the city as Scottish Cup holders for the first time in living memory. Just in case, new colleagues and fans have imparted their own thoughts.
“I’ve only been here a few days but already everyone has been speaking to me and telling me how important this game is. I feel it,” said Tziolis. “I understand what matters in these matches and, again, I hope everything will be okay for us. In the last home game against Rangers, the team played very well against a good opponent and a big team. So I hope on Sunday there is the same atmosphere and the same type of game.”
Tziolis’ calm exterior was in contrast to that of Motherwell players and officials at the end of Saturday’s game. Manager Mark McGhee was livid at referee Andrew Dallas’ decision to issue McHugh a straight red card.
“I’ve just watched it over and over again and never in a million years is it a sending off. It’s a joke,” said McGhee. “It’s a great tackle, he’s won the ball, what can I say – it’s a ridiculous decision. Will we appeal? 100 per cent. It’s clean as a whistle – what’s it all about? Hugely frustrating. People from the outside see 3-0 and think Hearts have beaten us well. That’s not the case at all.”