The pathway for Hearts to defeat Hibs on Sunday - and the X-factor who could lead the way
Craig Fowler picks out the players who'll need to perform for Hearts to leave Sunday's Edinburgh derby with all three points.
He then spent the next 45 minutes lighting up the place with his speed, trickery and relentless direct running. A drab encounter had been lit up and the roof would have came off the place had the trialist been able to put the cherry on top of his stunning introduction with a late winning goal in the 1-1 draw.
'Juanjo' as he would soon come to be known would go on to enjoy a decent, if unspectacular, career at Tynecastle after convincing Jim Jefferies with the aforementioned bow that he was more than worthy of a contract. Though he undoubtedly had his moments and was largely well-liked by the support, he didn't quite bamboozle opposing defenders in the manner in which he left Saints' heads spinning that day.
We can speculate as to why. The additional motivation of playing for a job perhaps brought out the best in him. Then, once the contract was signed, he got comfortable.
Or it could have been a case of what happens to several tricky, attackers players who burst onto the scene, especially younger ones. Opponents don't know much about them, haven't had the opportunity to study them - and they get their pants pulled down as a result. Once familiarity deepens, the magic wears off, and it's up to the attacking player to adjust. The great ones constantly do, the rest become afterthoughts.
We don't know what Ryotaro Meshino is going to be in the long-run, but Saturday's performance off the bench against Motherwell was already enough to suggest that the Manchester City loanee provides Hearts with their best possible X-factor when they travel to Easter Road this Sunday.
His skill and fearlessness in attack made him stand out like a rose from concrete as the home side made it 12 league games without victory. The collective rot that has drained his teammates of the ability to take chances in the final third does not yet appear to have swallowed up the 21-year-old. He played football like it's meant to be enjoyed. This trait will likely be ground out of him over the coming months, but his enthusiasm for entertainment should still be in function if he gets the chance to make his full debut in Leith, which he should.
Hibs' defence is all over the place at the moment and the last thing they'll want to face as a player with a strong pedigree whom they've never faced before and don't possess much resource in which to anticipate.
Even in the early stages a burst of creativity could become immensely important. Both sets of players will be fearful of getting the fans on their back. But if one of the two teams can get off to a quick start and ask questions of the opponent, thereby getting supporters back onside for the 90 minutes and increasing the pressure on the other side, then it could be hugely influential for the rest of the contest.
As ridiculous as it may sound, seeing as he's played just two games and 93 minutes of football, Meshino represents the best chance of that occurring for Hearts. In short, a 'Juanjo-type' performance on his full debut could provide a galvanising effect.
One other player capable of providing such a lift, though in a different manner, is Steven Naismith.
As highlighted on Sunday's Sportscene programme, there really appeared to be a lack of players holding each other accountable in Hearts' performance against Motherwell as they focused in on the lack of reaction to the first goal. There was a brief outcry in frustration, but from there it was heads down, shoulders slumped, trudging back to the halfway line. Sure, it was a goal from a set-piece that was fairly easy to breakdown - Sean Clare got out-muscled and out-jumped by Declan Gallagher - but Hearts had started dreadfully in the match and this was the time to hold a brief inquisition or for someone to fire his teammates.
Naismith operates as an assistant coach on the park and his emotional influence on the rest of the squad is always apparent when he's not in the starting XI. With the cauldron that will be Easter Road this Sunday - somehow, despite both halves of the divide being utter mince at the moment, this one is heading for a sell-out - his experience will be absolutely vital.
Elsewhere the defence needs to hold strong in ways it certainly has not in recent weeks, though the unit could be bolstered by the return of Michael Smith from injury, while attackers who possess pace need to put in at least solid performances. Hibs are susceptible on the counter-attack so the likes of Jake Mulraney, Sean Clare and Uche Ikpeazu need to show quickness of mind and foot when they get the ball into space.
With a strong squad, Hearts enter every game with an arsenal capable of hurting their opponents. As we've explained, Sunday is no exception. The problem is demonstrating that on the park.