It is enlightening to hear that even the Derbi barceloni between Espanyol and Barcelona is comparable with Hearts versus Hibs.
Moha El Ouriachi Choulay is preparing for his first taste of the Edinburgh derby having played on both sides of the Catalan divide. He spent time in the youth academies of Espanyol and Barcelona as a teenager but joined Hearts on a six-month loan from Stoke City last month.
A winger who prefers fast and technical football, he explained that sometimes such traits vanish in the intense hostility of a derby match. Talk of Spanish youth academies like Barca’s El Masia conjures images of passing drills on carpet-like pitches, practising ball skills in the sunshine and exciting flair on matchdays. Choulay possesses all of those attributes but had to toughen up to survive in youth matches involving the Catalan rivals.
He knows it may be a similar scenario this weekend when Hearts host Hibs in the fifth round of the Scottish Cup. Anticipation is heightened by knowledge that, barring a replay, this tie will be the only time the two Capital sides meet this season.
“I think Sunday is a big game. All derbies are big games, difficult games. Hibs are top of the second league in Scotland but, in derbies, it is always difficult to play and win,” said the 21-year-old, speaking to the Evening News in his first newspaper interview since arriving in Scotland.
“The biggest derby I played in was in Spain. I played in the youth teams at Espanyol and Barcelona. When they met, it was a good derby – even at youth level.
“There is still a lot of passion because you always want to win a derby at any level. There are lots of tackles, angry people, kicks and everything.
“I have never played against this team, Hibs, but all derbies are hard. There will be tackles, hard running and lots of work. I prefer technical football because that is better for me, but sometimes that does not happen in a derby.”
He has already shown an aptitude for Scottish football. After a debut in the 4-0 defeat by Celtic two weeks ago, he came off the substitutes’ bench at Fir Park last Saturday to set up all three goals in a convincing 3-0 win.
Curiously, the fresh-faced Moroccan needs persuading that all three assists belonged to him.
“Three? I think it was two,” he replied. It is pointed out to him that his pass inside to Alex Tziolis could also count as an assist given it preceded the Greek midfielder’s shot for the first goal. He then played an intelligent through ball for Esmael Goncalves to double the advantage and delivered a cross for the striker to score the third in a pleasing victory for head coach Ian Cathro. “Okay, yeah. Maybe three.” Clearly, young Choulay has a little bit to learn about fighting for accolades in an ultra-competitive first-team dressing room. Or maybe he is just being modest.
What he is very clear on is the reason he is here. “I came here for more experience and to play first-team matches,” he explained. “I wanted to play in a better league than the under-23 league in England. I want to help Hearts improve and win games. It has been a good start for me. I’m happy and I enjoyed the Motherwell game but I hope to do better in the next few games.”
Another performance like last week will see him pushing for a place in Cathro’s starting line-up.
“I will try, I don’t know. I will try to do my best to help the team. Because I’m quick, I can play one-against-one and I can play left or right side. I just want to play. I am left-footed. So far at Hearts I have played on the right, but normally I play on the left. It is all the same to me.
“I will try to do my best and, if the coach decides to play me from the start, that is better for me. If he doesn’t, I will play when I come on and try to do my best.”
He will probably have to make do with another supplementary role against Hibs. Demonstrating his ability to turn a game with pace and creativity like he did against Motherwell means he offers Hearts a useful weapon if they need to open Hibs up during the second half.
Cathro isn’t likely to deviate too much from the starting line-up at Motherwell. That might mean club captain Perry Kitchen again sitting beside Choulay on the bench whilst Tziolis and Malaury Martin occupy the central midfield berths.
Whoever is selected will be backed 100 per cent by their colleagues. “There are good people here and the team is always together. The coach helps me and speaks with me,” said Choulay. “Hearts try to keep the ball during games and I like that. We play passes and this suits my style.”
Regardless of how comfortable he might become in Edinburgh, Choulay is contractually obliged to return to his parent club in the summer. His aim is to penetrate the boundaries of the Stoke first-team squad and make his name in the cash-rich English Premier League. Until now, he has been nothing more than a promising youth player in the Staffordshire Potteries. That comes sharply into focus when he admits that manager Mark Hughes didn’t speak with him before the loan agreement with Hearts went through.
“I didn’t speak with Mark Hughes. Stoke told me they wanted me to go on loan to Hearts to get more experience. Then I should try to come back and be a better player,” he revealed.
Is there any chance he could be kept on by Hearts, either on loan or in a permanent transfer? “I don’t know what will happen, it depends how I play here. If I do well here, it depends. I don’t know at the moment.”
If he comes off the bench and sets up another three goals against Hibs, the Tynecastle support will be clamouring for him to stay. Derbies can make you a hero – be they in Spain or Scotland.