Hearts tour de force in Airdrie displayed one strength rivals don't have ahead of testing five game gauntlet
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At 3-0 up inside 21 minutes, you could be forgiven for thinking Hearts had simply met an inferior side from the division below, had you just switched on the TV.
The actual reality was Steven Naismith's side had met a pretty on the eye side with playing the ball on their mind. They had caused some threat but this Jambos side right now are ruthless. Airdrie were reduced to a watching brief as Naismith's men built their way from the back, into Jorge Grant and then Alex Cochrane's left boot for the inevitable Lawrence Shankland to tuck home the opener.
If they had figured that out, tough luck. Craig Halkett had a long range, route one ball over the top for them to deal with. Kenneth Vargas made sure they didn't. Calem Nieuwenhof has shown flashes of class in a maroon jersey since jetting in from Australia last summer. Finding his feet in Scotland was always likely to be a process of bedding in.
While he has now firmly found his feet, the Airdrie defenders are still looking for them after he danced in and out of them like training cones before firing into the corner. Shankland's goal after the break was what you have come to expect from a man who has every right to believe he is the league's top finisher at this point in time. What was a difficult cup tie on paper, on the TV, had all the hallmarks of a bananna skin. With 10 wins from the last 11 now banked though, Hearts don't look like stumbling anytime soon and a 4-1 win here was in no way flattering.
Consistency is one reason for their immense strides forward. Alex Cochrane spoke post-match of rhythm and while in some matches they have taken a little bit of time in the first half to get going, they showed they can start games in scintillating fashion too. What Hearts have that rivals in the race for Europe don't have is the consistent squad depth across the pitch. Between the sticks, there's an argument to be made that Zander Clark and Craig Gordon form the strongest goalkeeper department in the country in terms of those competing for a place in the team every week.
Craig Halkett's injury worry is obviously something Naismith and fans will hope isn't too serious. But at centre-back, they could bring on Kye Rowles with Frankie Kent allowed to take the day off on the bench.
Nathaniel Atkinson returned from a major tournament to replace the impressive Dexter Lembikisa at right-back. Scott Fraser's delicate chip into Shankland for the fourth goal was a thing of beauty. Macaulay Tait hasn't looked out of place amongst experience peers. Naismith has worked out how to get the most from his squad and the quality he brings onto the pitch from the bench rarely leaves them weaker.
Now that notion will be tested in the next five games. Hearts will be expected to emerge from their clash with Motherwell - who were dumped out the cup by Morton on Friday - before three more major clashes. Rangers at Ibrox before home games with Hibs and Celtic await. Positive performances and results across those games married with a quarter-final win over Morton at Cappielow in March, and belief a season to remember at Tynecastle is on the horizon will be sky-high.
"Everybody in the last eight thinks they have a chance,” Naismith added on the quarter-final after the win in Airdrie. “Our tie away to Morton, people will think we are favourites, but think there’s a potential upset there. I think if we’re not at it then it’ll be a really difficult game, they’ve shown on Friday that they are a good team and are in form.
“We want to go as far as we can, one of the games this season that is disappointing is the semi-final in the last cup – we want to get to the semi-final and do well this time. It was a really good performance, we scored early goals, scored four goals and it’s a comfortable night. On top of that, the detail that we’d worked on, nearly all of it was right and the players executed it brilliantly.
“There was loads of positives. I’d say we’re still a good bit away, we could be more clinical and in some moments I think when it went 3-0 we picked the wrong option and were forcing it."