Scottish League Cup semi-finals: Can Hearts upset holders Celtic?
|League Cup semi-final: Hearts v Celtic|
|Venue: Murrayfield Stadium Date: Sunday 28 October Kick-off: 13:30 GMT|
|Coverage: Listen live on Radio Scotland & online; text commentary on BBC Sport website & app|
Given the feelgood factor at Hearts right now - their team flying, their extraordinary Foundation recording fan contributions of £8m, their presence at Murrayfield on Sunday set to hit 30,000 or as near to it as makes no difference - it's no harm to reflect on the last 12 months in the life of the Jambos.
A little snapshot from this time last year. A manager had been sacked, Ian Cathro finally losing his job for failing to find a way of beating Peterhead or Dunfermline in the League Cup. He was replaced by director of football Craig Levein who, on an hourly basis, was getting pelted with flak from all sides.
The smell of gunpowder around Tynecastle would have been overpowering had the team been playing at Tynecastle. Nobody had thought to order seats for their new stand, so Murrayfield was still their home. A mess on the pitch and hardly a well-oiled machine off it either.
After 10 league games last term, Hearts were fifth in the league - eight points behind co-leaders Celtic and Aberdeen. They'd scored 10 goals and conceded 11. By the end of October they had been beaten not just by Peterhead - and out-played by Dunfermline in a 2-2 draw before going on to lose the penalty shoot-out - but also by Celtic, Motherwell, Dundee, Hibs and Rangers.
They played Kilmarnock, Partick Thistle and Ross County in November and couldn't beat any of them. They'd gone five games without a win and soon it would be six. By the end of the month, they'd dropped to seventh. They were six points off the bottom of the Premiership. And they were dull, oh so dull. No pace, no width, little goal threat, little optimism.
And now? Ten games into the season and they're top of the league. Overall, they've won 81% of their games. They've lost their top scorer from last season, Kyle Lafferty, but have managed to almost double their league goal tally. They've lost two of their principal defenders in Christophe Berra and John Souttar and yet they've conceded only seven goals in what is a noticeably better Premiership than last year's version.
There's this League Cup semi-final as well. Hearts go into it as 4-1 underdogs. Of the four teams left in the competition, they are the outsiders of the four at 7-1 to lift the trophy. In fairness, bookmakers' odds are not likely to deter them no more than the sale of their top striker did, no more than injuries to Berra and Souttar and Uche Ikpeazu did, no more than Levein's heart scare did.
This, in case you have missed it, is a different Hearts. After some scattergun recruitment they've become focused. The summer was huge for them. They introduced width - and wit - to the squad. They introduced pace and goals and energy. The are a faster team, more dynamic, more persistent and they've got some depth. Set-piece plays have become a bit of a weapon.
None of this guarantees anything against Celtic. If the champions can forget Thursday night in Leipzig and revert to last Saturday against Hibs at Celtic Park, it would be a brave person to bet against them. There is, though, the feeling that Hearts will push them hard, that their confidence and momentum could make this a memorable semi-final.
'It's like borrowing a Ferrari to impress a girl'
Ask a Hearts contact what's the big difference between this season and last, and he talks about players such as Peter Haring on one hand and a man from their recent past, Alexandros Tziolis, on the other.
In January 2017, Tziolis was signed by Cathro. His pedigree was unquestioned. A Greek international, he had appeared in a European Championship and a World Cup for his country. He'd played in the Champions League with Panathinaikos. He'd played in the UEFA Cup final and the German Cup final with Werder Bremen. He'd played in Serie A with Siena. He was, in some ways, a marquee signing.
"Tziolis, to use him as an example, was a terrific player, but you got the sense that he was doing Hearts a favour by joining rather than seeing Hearts as a big move," said a Tynecastle source. "None of the boys we have now are doing a Hearts a favour by being here."
When they expanded their recruitment department and introduced a little more technology in assessing their targets, there was one thing uppermost in the minds of Levein and others. 'Talent is one thing, but hunger is another. How hungry is this player?'
Haring, and most other summer arrivals, have proven themselves to be talented but also determined. When Hearts beat Celtic earlier in the season, Haring said it was his greatest day in football. That must have been music to Levein's ears. Of the likely starters against Celtic, probably only Steven Naismith would have had bigger days in the game. To the rest, if this is not their pinnacle, it's pretty damn close.
There's been a bit of fun in the recruitment as well.
"We take the players to see the training facility at Oriam and the hotel across the road and it's an impressive sell. The facilities are right up there," said the Hearts contact.
"To an extent, it's like a guy borrowing his mate's suit and another mate's Ferrari and heading out on a date trying to impress a girl because Oriam and the hotel are obviously not ours. But Tynecastle is. And when they see it, empty or full, you can see their eyes lighting up."
What will they do when they see Murrayfield and the biggest attendance at a domestic football match in almost 30 years - somewhere in the region of 67,000?
That's what makes this game intoxicating. Who needs drink inside a football stadium on days like this? The mere thought of this new Hearts side going toe-to-toe with the untouchable team that has had a monopoly on silverware in this country over the last two years is enough to make you light-headed all by itself.