Monday morning would have been more gruelling than normal at Riccarton given events at BT Murrayfield 24 hours previously.
Hearts’ Betfred Cup semi-final exit to Celtic was still extremely raw, but tomorrow provides an immediate opportunity for the ideal tonic. Beating Hibs would quickly send spirits soaring again.
Craig Levein and his players return to league business when their well-rested Edinburgh rivals visit Tynecastle Park for an evening kick-off. Hibs will have completed 11 days without action come tomorrow night and will undoubtedly be the fresher side. Hearts will be relying on motivation to atone for Sunday’s 3-0 cup defeat.
It is the Capital clubs’ first meeting of the campaign and will be a new experience for the vast majority of Hearts’ squad. Levein recruited 18 players in total following the end of last season and this will be the first time they have entered an Edinburgh derby cauldron. Most have a rough idea of what is required and will be hungry for a result after Sunday’s emotionally painful loss.
“It is massive tomorrow,” stressed midfielder Olly Lee, one of the new arrivals. “Sunday was disappointing. We all enjoyed the build-up and the fans were brilliant. We can’t thank them enough for their support. It was a shame we couldn’t get a result but we have got another big game tomorrow night. That is the great thing about football, you can look to the next big game. Hopefully we can go and beat Hibs. If we do that everyone will feel better again.”
The magnitude of the occasion against Celtic would have forced the new faces to realise, if they didn’t already, Hearts’ true potential. In that sense Sunday will be looked on as a learning curve despite Celtic progressing to the final via a convincing scoreline. Lee admitted he and his colleagues can only benefit from the experience.
“Without a doubt. It was a massive game for all of us. I loved every minute of it. It was great going out there and seeing 30,000 Hearts fans. It was brilliant. That is the reason I came up here [from England]. We are striving to be involved in these games a lot. It was a first taste for us. There will be a lot more to come.
“It was ridiculous seeing so many Hearts fans. I can’t tell you how much the lads appreciated it. We were all buzzing to be going out there at the start. In the first-half we felt we acquitted ourselves well. We were well in the game. We just needed the rub of the green. If we had got that first goal, something to frustrate them a little bit more, it could have been different. It wasn’t to be – but we gave it our all.©
“Celtic are a good side. They have played in the Champions League and done the treble in the last couple of years. We have beaten them once this season so we knew we were capable of it. Getting the first goal would have been massive. We could have frustrated them a bit more. It’s an old saying, but goals change games.”
Hearts were lamenting the penalty award which brought Celtic winger Scott Sinclair the game’s opening goal. Oliver Bozanic was penalised by referee Willie Collum for a challenge on Ryan Christie inside the penalty area. Sinclair’s finish from the spot left Zdenek Zlamal no chance in goal.
“I thought it was soft to be honest but he [Christie] had an opportunity to go down. He has taken it and got the penalty,” said Lee. “You need the rub of the green in these games. We felt we were doing well up until then. We didn’t react as well as we could have. We should have bounced back better but it wasn’t to be. At half-time we thought we were doing really well, thought we were comfortable. We just needed to get that first chance. But when they scored the first goal it deflated us. We couldn’t dig it out from there.”
Zlamal was culpable at the second Celtic goal as the failed to hold Christie’s shot and pushed the ball out for James Forrest to score with a straightforward finish. The giant Czech apologised to colleagues in the dressing-room at full-time and also said sorry to supporters in yesterday’s Evening News.
The Hearts squad collectively gave him an understanding response after a run of excellent goalkeeping displays. Zlamal has become a popular figure at Tynecastle since arriving from the Czech Republic four months ago. His error is unlikely to see a black mark etched against his name with the fans.
“He was disappointed and he has said sorry, but he has saved us so many times this season so he didn’t need to do that. He has been brilliant. It was a credit to him that he took responsibility but it was just unfortunate. We just said to him: ‘It’s fine.’ He has saved us a number of times this season and we would be on less points without him. He didn’t need to say anything, but that’s the kind of guy he is.”
Lee admitted Celtic could have scored five or six goals had Zlamal not made some impressive saves from Sinclair, Christie and Kieran Tierney, amongst others. “Correct. He pulled off some great saves which kept the scoreline respectable.”
One issue continuing to make life difficult for Hearts is their increasing injury list. It seems like each game results in another key player sitting on the sidelines. The latest is Steven Naismith, the on-loan Norwich City forward, who departed Sunday’s affair after only eight minutes with a knee complaint. He won’t be fit to face Hibs.
“Losing Steven was a big blow. He is the leader of our team,” said Lee, with Naismith having taken the captain’s armband following injuries to skipper Christophe Berra and his deputy John Souttar. “We have lost a lot of leaders this season. We keep bouncing back and we keep proving people wrong, but Sunday was a step too far for us I think.”