Hearts cup final XI: Who’s still fighting to secure starting spot at Hampden?
A critical period beckons for several members of Hearts’ squad as the battle to be involved in the Scottish Cup final hots up in the coming weeks.
Craig Levein made it clear immediately after the semi-final victory over Inverness Caledonian Thistle last month that “there are certainly places available for the people who want them the most.”
In the wake of Sunday’s 1-1 draw away to Hibs, the manager added that “everybody who is fit and available will be in contention.”
At this point, with three league games and just over three weeks to go until the final against Celtic on May 25, there are more than 20 players who can be deemed realistic contenders to feature in the 18-man matchday squad. Within this group, the vast majority will feel they have at least some kind of chance of being included in the starting line-up.
Given that Hearts haven’t been in particularly good form in the lead-up to the final, with few players displaying the required level of consistency, it seems reasonable to assume that the manager is genuinely open to the idea of rewarding anyone who is able to put together a late-season flourish. In that regard, the upcoming league matches against Kilmarnock, Aberdeen and Celtic could allow certain squad members to play themselves into – or out of – contention for a potentially career-defining day at Hampden.
Trying to forecast exactly how Levein’s starting XI will look on cup final day is a near-impossible task at this stage, and is further complicated by fitness concerns surrounding key men. Here we take a look at the prospects of all the players jostling for a place.
Barring injury, or any other unforeseen circumstances arising, there are currently six Hearts players who look certain to start the final: Zdenek Zlamal, Michael Smith, Christophe Berra, John Souttar, Arnaud Djoum and Uche Ikpeazu. Although Zlamal was dropped for a couple of months in the winter, he is now back between the sticks and, crucially, in good form. His wonder save was key to the semi-final victory over Inverness Caledonian Thistle and, although prone to the odd heart-in-mouth moment when kicking or coming for a cross, he is generally solid and dependable. The Czech will start the final barring any outrageous howlers in the next few weeks. Smith has become Levein’s Mr Dependable over the past two years and the only question marks over his participation in the final are with regard to which position he starts in – right-back, left-back, wing-back, sweeper or even central midfield? Chances are he will feature on the right. The names of Berra and Souttar will already be inked in on every potential team Levein will have jotted down so far. Two of the best centre-backs in the country over the past two seasons, there is no chance of either being omitted for Hearts’ biggest match in that period. Djoum’s inclusion in this section will cause some consternation within a section of the Hearts support as some remain unconvinced by his value to the team. Crucially, Levein doesn’t fall into that camp. The manager is a big fan of the Cameroon internationalist and views him as one of the pillars of his team. Djoum is widely deemed to have been one of Hearts’ best players over the past six months and it would be a major surprise if he wasn’t in the starting line-up for what could be his last game for the club. Ikpeazu, as the focal point of Hearts’ attack and the only semi-regular goalscorer in the team at present, is another one who can rest assured that he will be starting on May 25.
Aside from the form fluctuations of his inconsistent team, the main issue clouding Levein’s thinking with regard to the final is the fact he isn’t certain whether his two most influential players this season – Peter Haring and Steven Naismith – are going to be fit. He may privately have an inclination of whether they will be ready, but it is not inconceivable that he may have to make a decision on either or both of his key men in the days leading up to the match. Although Haring has a chance of featuring against Kilmarnock this weekend after taking an injection, that will not necessarily signal that he is injury-free. It promises to be an anxious couple of weeks for the Austrian, but he and Levein will at least take encouragement from the fact match fitness shouldn’t be too much of an issue since he has played as recently as two-and-a-half weeks ago and should be equipped to be pitched in at any point in the month ahead and hold his own. That probably wouldn’t be the case for Naismith, however, as he has been out for more than two months. The talismanic attacker will surely need to get at least some minutes under his belt in the remaining league matches if he is to be considered for a start. As much as Hearts fans will be desperate to see him start the final, it would be an extremely risky – and potentially counterproductive – move pitching a player straight back in to a highly-charged cup final against the strongest team in the country after a full three months out.
IN THE BALANCE
Depending on the fitness of Haring and Naismith, there appears to be between three and five starting places up for grabs. The leading contenders to fill those berths are, in no particular order, Conor Shaughnessy, Bobby Burns, Olly Lee, Oliver Bozanic, Harry Cochrane, Sean Clare, Jake Mulraney and Steven MacLean. The participation of centre-back Shaughnessy and left-back Burns is likely to depend on which formation Levein goes with. If he starts with three centre-backs, Shaughnessy will probably get the nod over Clevid Dikamona. If he goes with four at the back, Burns, as the only recognised left-back available, is likely to start. Of this group of eight players, Mulraney – as the main driving force and creative spark in the team – currently appears the likeliest to start although his form has not been consistent enough, particularly in terms of delivering an end product, that he can be considered a guaranteed starter. Bozanic is probably reliant on Haring missing out to have a chance, while Lee and Clare – although regulars at various points in the season – are not currently firing on all cylinders and still have work to do to give themselves a chance of starting at Hampden. Teenage midfielder Harry Cochrane and veteran striker Steven MacLean are two players who have come back into the mix in recent matches and have done their cause no harm with eye-catching performances. If they can carry the flashes of form they have shown over the past couple of weeks into the remaining league matches, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if either – or even both – were to start the final.
BENCH AT BEST
Clevid Dikamona, Jamie Brandon, Marcus Godinho, Craig Wighton, David Vanecek, Conor Smith and Andy Irving are, at this point, probably jostling to earn themselves a place on the substitutes’ bench. Dikamona will still feel he has an outside chance of starting, and many supporters would like to see the committed Congolese more heavily involved but, using last Sunday’s match against Hibs as a gauge, he currently looks to be behind Shaughnessy in the battle to be Hearts’ third-choice centre-back. As a self-proclaimed team player, Dikamona would revel in the chance to come on in the last few minutes of the final to help his team see out a lead in the closing stages.
THE DARK HORSE
Just a couple of weeks ago, the prospect of Ryan Edwards starting the final would have seemed almost as far-fetched as Michael Stewart being stationed in Levein’s midfield, but the Australian all of a sudden appears to have an outside chance of being involved. Having been a total outcast for most of the season, he was finally given an opportunity against Hibs on Sunday and supporters were impressed with his tenacity as he harried the opposition and helped Hearts seize the upper hand during his time on his pitch. He would have to continue impressing over the next few weeks to have a chance of starting but, bearing in mind that Celtic are likely to have the majority of the possession, Edwards’ high-energy style may be ideal if Hearts choose to play an aggressive pressing game. The prospect of Haring and Edwards simultaneously tearing about the Hampden turf, ruffling Celtic feathers would certainly help rouse the Hearts support.