Hearts travel to Hampden Park to face Inverness CT in their first Scottish Cup semi final in seven years. Joel Sked looks ahead to the crucial game.
“I would much rather they shouted at me than the players. Some of our players can take it, others are young and still making their way in the game so I would rather it was me it was directed at,” said Hearts boss Craig Levein.
To pull on the maroon jersey, players are required to have thick skin. Fans are demanding and the pressure can be intense, especially at Tynecastle.
Following the rubbish served up at Ibrox in a 3-0 defeat then losing the first home derby in six years having taken the lead, the support are not in the best mood with pressure increasing on Levein.
Yet, credit to Hearts fans with more than 17,500 snapping up tickets for the 12.15 kick-off at Hampden Park on Saturday afternoon.
That means there will be a sizeable element either ready to turn on the players and/or manager or simply vent frustration if the team struggle against Championship opposition.
This writer wrote ahead of the derby that getting a fast start was paramount to winning the game. The fast start happened and Hearts were on the verge of blowing Hibs away but the Easter Road side equalised within moments of the opening goal and that intensity petered out.
That cannot be allowed to happen. Fans want the team to play on the front foot on Saturday and if they get ahead they will want the team to keep going and show no mercy.
If the game is tight and nervy the players will have to inspire the fans. They will have to dig deep and find mental fortitude to shut out any criticism from the stands.
The game plan
Craig Levein used his pre-match press conference to rubbish the idea that the team were one-dimensional. The manager was responding to jibes and criticisms that they were overly reliant on Uche Ikpeazu.
It is a perfectly reasonable critique. To the untrained eye, it appears that the key focus is on getting the ball into the feet of the Englishman and playing from there.
There is not a lot wrong with that idea considering Steven Naismith, that link between midfield and attack, is missing.
Plus, as Levein said: “My view is we’ve got a really good player at the front of the field who can do things that other players can’t deal with, so let’s use him.”
It would be wrong to label the side a ‘long-ball team’ - they play the fourth fewest long passes in the Scottish Premiership. But they can be predictable. When Hibs shut off the passing lanes into Ikpeazu Hearts struggled in the final third and all that was left was huff and puff.
It is time to return to the 4-4-2 which served the team so well at the start of the season and pair Ikpeazu with Steven MacLean - let’s face it, the former will most likely be fit. The duo built a fine understanding in the opening weeks of the season and it was a partnership which looked like it would blossom.
The return of the experienced striker would take pressure and responsibility from Uche’ shoulders and give Hearts two targets in attack.
Following on from the view that Hearts simply focus on Uche Ikpeazu, he needs help, that there can be no doubt. And the semi final presents an opportunity for someone to become a hero.
For too long some players have been putting in decent, passable displays without really leaving a stamp on a game, putting in a 7 or 8 out of 10 performance for three or four games running.
Two players which come to mind. Sean Clare and Jake Mulraney. Both have made strides since the start of their Hearts careers. The latter is playing with more confidence, while the former has those moments where he can light up a game. Both, however, still have plenty of work to do to convince a sizeable portion of the crowd.
Their eyes should light up when they step on the Hampden pitch. The wide open spaces, avenues compared to the tight alleyways of Tynecastle. Both are fast and explosive, capable of eating up the turf and leaving opponents in their wake.
Hearts should be looking to bring them into the game at every point, setting them free in the hope they will fire the team into the final and their names into the headlines.
“Robbo knows me and I know him and we’ll know roughly what we’re going to do. It might just be reliant on one or two players on the day either being exceptional or making mistakes.”
The words of Levein haven’t quite inspired the Hearts support ahead of such a big match. The feeling being that this is Heart of Midlothian. Premiership side Heart of Midlothian. They are Inverness Caledonian Thistle. Championship outfit Inverness Caledonian Thistle.
Earlier this campaign, Hearts defeated ICT 5-0 in the Betfred Cup. There will be an expectation among some that that dominance should be replicated.
Yet, since then, Inverness have not lost a game by more than a goal. Their Championship title challenge has been thwarted by an abundance of draws. Beaten just nine times in 43 games, they are competitive
In Aaron Doran they have a matchwinner, while lanky striker Jordan White will pose problems.
There is a sizeable ex-Tynecastle contingent among the Inverness playing and coaching staff. Manager and Hearts legend John Robertson will know what to expect from Levein. Brad McKay and Mark Ridgers will likely start. Kevin McHattie should be in the squad but Anthony McDonald misses out due to his loan terms from the Jam Tarts.
It will be the third meeting between the sides in the semi final of a national cup competition.
When the draw was made Hearts fans will likely have had two thoughts: 1) ‘What a chance to get into the final!’ 2) ‘Dear God, remember the last time we met Inverness in a semi final?’
Sunday, 2 February 2014. With 20 minutes left of the game at Easter Road, Hearts led 2-1 thanks to a double strike from Jamie Hamill and were up against ten men. In stoppage time they went down to nine men.
Two minutes later they had equalised. Despite 30 minutes with a man advantage the Capital side could not score. Predictably they lost on penalties. That season ended in relegation but that semi final may just have been the low point.
A year previously, at the same venue, Hearts emerged victorious on penalties with Michael Ngoo emerging the hero with his equaliser in normal time.
There will be few in the Hearts crowd who could face a third penalty shootout.
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