THERE are some games where it soon becomes clear that the proverbial banana skin’s potential will remain unrealised.
The bigger team has prepared properly, goes about its business in a workmanlike manner, and emerges with the sort of result which reaffirms the disparity between the sides.
Hearts’ first visit to Stair Park, all of a century after Stranraer made it their home, was very much a case in point. The home side played robustly and were perhaps unlucky not to score, but over the piece this was very much a solid beginning to their defence of the trophy by the Scottish Cup holders.
The suspension of Paul Hartley and injuries to several others meant that this was far from being the strongest Hearts line-up, and there were moments of uncertainty in the middle of defence and in central midfield, but once the first goal went in any prospect of an upset quickly grew fainter.
As was the case in the CIS Cup visit to Alloa earlier in the season, Valdas Ivanauskas’s calculations about the strength of the side he needed to field proved pretty accurate, and some time before the end the coach would have been able to start thinking about the visit of Celtic on Sunday.
The expected return of Julien Brellier and Marius Zaliukas for that match should lend greater assuredness to the spine of the side, and Edgaras Jankauskas will come back into consideration up front. The difficulty for Ivanauskas, however, will be deciding on the striking partnership: Andrius Velicka’s hat-trick on Saturday represented a return to form and should guarantee him a place, while Roman Bednar was a dynamic substitute and also got on to the scoresheet. But Bednar is short of match fitness since coming back from injury, and the coach will have to decide whether to start with him and see how long he lasts, or whether to use Jankauskas to try to tire the Celtic defence first.
Another question to be considered is who played best against Steven Pressley at training. The former Hearts captain should start alongside Darren O’Dea for Celtic, and may feel more discomfited by the pace of Bednar than he would by the solidity of Jankauskas.
“My fitness is going better - today it was 30 minutes and I looked sharp,” said Bednar, whose goal here was his first since his strike against Celtic in the second league game of the season. “So we will see how long [I can last]. Maybe 60.”
Bednar upped the pace of the game considerably when he came on for Michal Pospisil just after the hour mark, and unsettled the Stranraer defence with his strength and speed. “I think everybody sees I do more work than just scoring goals,” he added. “Everybody calls me a striker, but I want to help with my work and my passing. If I score one goal every three games I will be happy.”
The Czech player’s strike from a Velicka cutback made it 3-0 with a little over ten minutes left, and finally disheartened Stranraer. Another substitute, Saulius Mikoliunas, saw a shot come back off the post in the penultimate minute, then, going into stoppage time, Velicka completed his hat-trick with a delightful dink which beat the home goalkeeper Scott Black at his near post.
Hearts’ superior fitness was a telling factor in the closing quarter of an hour, though it should be added that they did enough to win the match long before Stranraer had run out of steam.
Bruno Aguiar had already sent a free-kick just over the bar before he laid on the opener for Velicka. The midfielder’s ball over the top gave the striker a clear run in on Black, and the goalkeeper stood no chance with a well-weighted lob.
Stranraer enjoyed their best spell of the match in the ensuing 20 minutes or so, and the Hearts back four looked decidedly discomposed for much of that time. The visiting defence were not helped by Neil McCann who, although in the holding midfield position, persisted in trying to dribble past opponents even when deep in his own half.
A shot from David Hamilton was the most difficult moment of that period for Hearts goalkeeper Craig Gordon to deal with, however, and three minutes before the break the holders made it 2-0. Andy Driver’s corner from the right glanced off a couple of heads at the near post, and Velicka showed his predatory instincts by getting to the deflection to volley in from a couple of yards out.
Stranraer began the second half convinced that if they got the next goal they would be back in the contest, and they came very close to doing that with 20 minutes to play. Michael Moore’s volley from well outside the box looked bound for the back of the net all of the way, until Gordon dived magnificently to save. Hearts closed out the game competently after that, and can look back with some satisfaction on an unspectacular but thoroughly professional afternoon’s work.
Stranraer: Black, Snowdon, McAlpine, Aitken (Walker 89), Wilson, Sharp, Hamilton, Crilly (Wright 51), Moore, Burns (Mullen 45), Ramsay. Subs Not Used: Morrison, Hunter
Hearts Gordon, Neilson (Mikoliunas 68), Wallace, Karipidis, Berra, Barasa, Aguiar, McCann (Jonsson 81), Driver, Velicka, Pospisil (Bednar 63). Subs Not Used: Banks, John Armstrong
Ref: E Smith (Scotland)