Hearts boss Craig Levein to award more of his academy players with game time at Celtic
The countdown clock shows there is now just one week until Hearts’ Scottish Cup final showdown with Celtic.
In the circumstances, both teams could probably do without the awkward distraction of tomorrow’s relatively meaningless final Premiership meeting at Celtic Park ahead of what will be a season-defining finale at Hampden. For Celtic, an unprecedented treble-treble is at stake next weekend; for Hearts, there is a chance to claim a first major trophy for seven years and transform an underwhelming campaign into a successful one.
It would be stretching a point to bill this weekend’s match as a dress rehearsal since the teams that take the pitch tomorrow are likely to be significantly different to those chosen by Neil Lennon and Craig Levein on cup final day. In addition, intensity levels are sure to be higher in the big one at the national stadium.
“It is a bit strange,” Levein said ahead of Hearts’ trip to Celtic Park less than a week before the final. “My main focus has obviously been on the final. So that has really shaped my thoughts for this game. It’s not as if we can surprise each other – there are no secrets, are there? Neither of us are going to produce players from our back pockets.
“There won’t be anybody involved who they don’t know. But I’m protecting some injured players, resting some players and playing more young boys than we would normally. I hope to get a win. That’s my first thought.
“I don’t want to be sitting on Monday morning with any injuries, that’s also important – and I’m sure Celtic will be the same. I’m sure the game will be competitive because they always are.”
Levein is viewing the match as an opportunity to give some of his teenage prospects a rare chance to play at one of the biggest arenas in Britain. “We’re going to have some younger players involved because, when I look at it, the benefits to them are obvious,” explained the manager. “There are older guys who will benefit from more training time and one less game. But the young players will benefit from playing in this atmosphere, so it makes sense.
“Before I put a young player in, they have to be doing well – that’s the first thing. There’s no point, in a game like this, just throwing in a young player who is off form. So anyone who plays will be doing really well in the reserves.
“Also, this is a little bit different as a game. It will be competitive but I don’t think it will be toe-to-toe, like some of these games can be. We’ve got a different pressure from Celtic. They’re in front of their home fans, the last game of the season, they’ll be expecting to win.”
After Sunday’s game, the Hearts squad will travel to St Andrews to begin preparations for the final. They will stay in Fife until Wednesday before returning to the Capital.
“It’s just to get away, get some different scenery and make it feel special,” said Levein. “And also in the early part of the week to do a bit of work on what we’ll need to do the following weekend. We’ve been up there a couple of times in the past and it’s a nice environment.”
Levein doesn’t expect to finalise his cup final team until later in the week, once he has a greater idea of the availability of key trio Peter Haring, Arnaud Djoum and Uche Ikpeazu. “I’ll review what’s happened on Sunday and monitor the progress of Pete, Arnaud and Uche,” he said. “It’ll be nearer the end of the week, or the day before, when we talk about who’s actually going to play.”
One man hoping to cement his place in the cup final line-up is Sean Clare. For the likes of the former Sheffield Wednesday midfielder, who is among a group of players with a good chance of starting but who can’t yet be deemed a certainty, this weekend’s match could be critical. “It would be massive for me to get picked because it would be my first cup final,” said the 22-year-old Englishman. “I’ve just got to put myself in the best light in games and in training – that’s what everybody’s trying to do. Hopefully we’re all giving the manager something to think about and whatever team he picks will be ready.
“I don’t know myself but I wouldn’t have thought the manager has picked his team exactly right now. I’m sure if you go there (to Celtic Park) and don’t do things properly, you could easily find yourself out the team. I don’t think anyone here is like that. We’re all professional players and as soon as we get on that pitch we’ll be focused on doing our best for the team and for ourselves.”