As the clocks change and the days get darker, it feels strange to be previewing a Scottish Cup semi-final… but thanks to the surprising decision made by the Scottish FA to finish last season’s competition, it turns out that some trophies are going to be decided on the pitch after all… (Can you tell that I’m still bitter?!)
So here we are – and on Saturday at 5 pm, in front of an empty Hampden Park – one of the least eagerly-anticipated Edinburgh derbies of modern times will kick-off.
And despite the disparity between the leagues that the two clubs find themselves in – and the obvious advantage afforded to Hibs with a longer, more competitive and uninterrupted preparation for the game – it appears to be too close to call.
Even the bookies – who aren’t often wrong – are struggling to pick a winner. Some place the men in maroon as the favourites, others are backing Jack Ross’ Premiership side. So, who is going to come out on top?
Everything is pointing to a close, nail-biting contest that will likely be decided by the finest of margins – and along with the help of the only Hibs supporter whose view I trust – I’ve taken a look at some areas of the park where the game could be won and lost…
THE HEARTS FAN’S PERSPECTIVE
The Hearts defence vs the Hibs attack
An area of concern for any Hearts fan would have to be the somewhat untested defensive pairing of Craig Halkett and Mihai Popescu. The recently assembled central-defensive duo has coped adequately with any test that has been thrown at them so far this season. Still, it’s fair to say that the strike-forces faced so far don’t match up to the Doidge/Boyle/Nisbet axis that Hibs will threaten Hearts with at Hampden.
Hearts fans can take confidence from the fact that if the defence is breached, Hibs will have a job on their hands to actually get the ball in the net. Craig Gordon has settled into his second spell with the Tynecastle club and is also producing the kind of match-winning stops that earned him a £9m move all those years ago. A welcome change to the string of calamitous Hearts keepers who have tried to occupy the goal for the last few seasons…
The midfield battle
As with so many games – this match could easily be decided in the heart of the midfield, where Hearts have more than enough resource to come out on top.
A rejuvenated Jamie Walker playing in front of a combative pairing that will consist of two players from Olly Lee, Andy Irving, Peter Haring and/or Andy Halliday is more than a match for a likely midfield three of Alex Gogic, Joe Newell and Stevie Mallan in green and white.
Whoever can stamp their authority in the centre of the park early on, will have a real chance of running the game.
The right wing
Hearts were dealt a huge blow when Josh Ginnelly limped off after nine minutes at Arbroath last Friday night. The tricky winger has settled in well at Tynecastle, and with electric pace on a big pitch like Hampden, he was always likely to pose problems for whoever ends up playing at left back for Hibs.
Robbie Neilson will be hoping for a miraculous recovery in time for Saturday – but will already be plotting other ways in which he can target a weakness on the left side of the Hibs defence. Expect Elliot Frear as a possible deputy to Ginnelly.
Lewis Stevenson had worked his way back into the Hibs starting XI in recent weeks, but after picking up a knock at Kilmarnock last weekend, the veteran full back looks unlikely to feature – and Josh Doig, who will probably fill in, can expect to be targeted, with a lot of Hearts’ forward play naturally coming down the right side of the pitch.
Is this where the game could be won?
But what of the green and white side of Edinburgh though? I asked my good friend Scott Wightman to tell me where he thought Hearts could be a threat, and where he thinks Hibs have the upper hand…
THE HIBS FAN’S PERSPECTIVE
The Hibs defence
One of the most promising developments within the Hibs team this season has been a defensive solidity which was sorely lacking under Paul Heckingbottom. Having only conceded 10 goals in the Premiership so far, compared to 23 goals after the same amount of games last season, the improvements at the back have given Hibs a platform to pick up points where they have previously struggled.
This upturn in form was rewarded with Scotland call-ups for Paul McGinn, Ryan Porteous, Paul Hanlon and Josh Doig last month, as well as Ofir Marciano being selected to represent Israel (albeit he was the subject of a horrendous blunder while on international duty). Jack Ross will be banking on Hibs continuing their impressive defensive form and snuffing out the ominous threat of a hungry looking Liam Boyce if they are to emerge victorious from Saturday’s semi-final.
In a summer of what looks like shrewd recruitment for Hibs, the signature of Alex Gogic has gone some way to replacing a lack of midfield presence last season. With the departures of Marvin Bartley and Mark Milligan in the summer of 2019 and the subsequent failure to replace either, Hibs were far too easy to play through and break down. The arrival of Gogic has provided Jack Ross with the midfield enforcer he required. The Cypriot has been pivotal in the Hibs team this season and has provided strong cover for the defence while also letting his midfield partner, Joe Newell, flourish in a freer role.
Given the pattern of previous Edinburgh derbies, Thomas (the author of this piece) is correct to point out the importance of the midfield battle. With both teams matching up fairly even in the middle of the park, Hibs will need their midfield, especially Gogic, to be on top form.
With the very real possibility of extra time and penalties, both managers may be reliant upon the ability to change shape and/or switch personnel. Both squads have been bolstered this summer, and Robbie Neilson and Jack Ross are in the fortunate position of having viable options on their bench. Hearts, for example, have managed maximum points from their first two games in the Championship with captain Steven Naismith yet to feature. Likewise, Hibs are hoping to have the option of at least one of Jamie Murphy and Drey Wright fit and ready to be called upon by the weekend.
With the tension and caginess that is likely to occur at Hampden on Saturday, it may well be an inspired substitution that sways the game in one teams’ favour.
Note: This article was first published on Patreon for our subscribers there yesterday night.
Editorial Note: Did you know this article appeared first on our Patreon page? We need you the viewers to help save The 4th Official! Due to the unprecedented situation as a result of the COVID 19 pandemic, the digital media space has been completely devastated. There has been a massive shortfall in revenue (even while viewership is up) as we scramble how to make sure that we go on with our daily job. We are proud to put up exclusive stuff on our Patreon account and hope you would support us in these tough times. Click the button below and please have a look as to how you can support us.