Hearts team to play Celtic: Five selection issues facing Robbie Neilson ahead of Scottish Cup final
Hearts won 6-1 last weekend against Queen of the South but there will be changes for the Scottish Cup final with Celtic.
Manager Robbie Neilson and his assistants, Lee McCulloch and Gordon Forrest, are expected to alter the starting line-up for Sunday’s showpiece occasion at Hampden Park.
Players will drop out and others will be promoted from the substitutes’ bench, with experience certain to be a factor in the choices made. First, the Hearts management team must decide on a formation.
This is not helped by the fact that Celtic’s own system has changed in recent weeks. Neil Lennon has used 4-2-3-1, 3-4-3 and 3-5-2 of late so Hearts won’t know the opposition’s plan until kick-off.
Neilson has favoured 4-3-3 in some recent Hearts games in an effort to generate more goals through an expansive approach. He is expected to employ a more conservative 4-2-3-1 on Sunday.
If Hearts can plug gaps in midfield areas and stop their opponents finding a passing rhythm, they will be confident of causing some damage at the opposite end against an unconvincing Celtic defence.
Neilson’s own back line effectively picks itself. Mihai Popescu started the season at centre-back beside Craig Halkett before Christophe Berra regained fitness. Berra is certain to keep his place.
Halkett is already a first pick, with Michael Smith and Stephen Kingsley the full-backs, and there is no doubt Craig Gordon will be in goal.
Moving into midfield, the next issue is tricky. Andy Irving, 20, has been one of Hearts’ most influential players this season despite not boasting the experience of Andy Halliday.
If Peter Haring is one of the two holding midfielders, Neilson has a dilemma over whether Irving or Halliday should partner the Austrian. Haring and Halliday were both left on the bench against Queen of the South which may indicate the manager’s preferred pairing.
Hearts’ attackers will have derived plenty confidence from Saturday’s goalscoring display. The sight of Josh Ginnelly returning from injury to play the final 28 minutes – scoring his team’s sixth goal – was particularly timely ahead of the final.
The on-loan Preston North End winger instantly became a favourite among the Tynecastle support with his early performances for the club before a thigh injury. Getting him back fit is significant boost for Neilson.
Now he must decide whether to start the Englishman on the wide Hampden surface and try to exploit his pace, or keep him in reserve for another cameo outing.
Olly Lee may find himself starting if Neilson goes with the latter option. It would be a surprise if Elliott Frear or Jordan Roberts jumped the queue.
Captain Steven Naismith is expected to play in a No.10 position with Jamie Walker likely to be deployed wide on the left. Both found the net at the weekend.
That leaves the final issue for Neilson and his coaches to debate – who plays at centre-forward.
Liam Boyce is the obvious favourite after two goals against Queens. He is a Northern Ireland internationalist who struck the decisive extra-time penalty against Hibs in the semi-final.
It is hard to envisage Craig Wighton – who also scored in the semi – taking precedence over Boyce but the former Dundee forward could have an impact as a substitute.