Sunday, 3 April 2011

Hibernian v Hearts preview

Tom Hill from The Scottish Football Blog and I wote separate pieces for today's Edinburgh Derby. The first part, written by Tom, is from the Hibs perspective.  The second part was written by myself.  My secret is out.

Please follow the link above and check out Tom's blog.


Edinburgh Derby Preview: A Hibs Perspective
 
Colin Calderwood recently the had pleasure of meeting me for the first time.

Truth be told, I’d possibly over indulged. 

Drink beer and wine you'll feel fine. But when you drink wine and beer you'll feel queer. 

Quite.

So my attempts to congratulate him on Hibs’ recent run of form possibly sounded a little like:

“See me, Col, I’m a bit pished.”

But he’s a very approachable chap, smiled benignly and said that he had much work still to do.

And indeed he does.

His tenure at Hibs has been short but not without challenges. He took over a failing team and it continued to fail.

Faced with both a bleak league table and a squad that clearly did not impress him, he then had to use the transfer window to halt a decline that was beginning to look perilously like a manifesto for relegation.

He pulled that off. Hibs have won five of their last six games, only a draw at St Johnstone denying them 18 points from 18.

That’s impressive. More so when we consider that this has been done with a team that bears little resemblance to the one John Hughes started the season with.

It’s quite unusual in Scottish football for a manager to scrape together such a transformation in the January transfer window. It’s unheard of at Easter Road.

So Calderwood has laid aside his faltering start, begun to sweep out the mess left by his predecessor and taken some steps towards convincing the fans that here is a manager who can prosper at a club that has recently shown a remarkable intolerance to any perceived weaknesses in the dugout.

As a Hibs fan all of this heartens me.

And that should mean I’m feeling reasonably confident about Sunday’s derby.

Well, to an extent.

Partly my trepidation comes from too much experience of Hearts-ache. Partly it’s because I am, by nature, predisposed to take a bleak view of the world and everyone and everything that’s in it.

Those are general, lasting reasons for a sense of pre-derby misgiving.

There are also more pressing concerns for Sunday.

The fact that Hibs haven’t played a competitive game since March 5th means, at the very least, they are going into this one short of match practice or any real guide to their form. That could either be a good thing or a bad thing.

The six game undefeated run has been welcome, it’s been enjoyable and calmed talk of a club in crisis.

But Kilmarnock are the highest placed side to have been beaten. There’s been no test against the Old Firm, no measure of progress against a form team like Dundee United.

A new look side has done well to win so many games as they searched for cohesion and understanding in the squad.

Yet even taking into account the slight halt to Hearts’ progress as they find themselves bogged down in the no man’s land of third place, a derby represents a completely different challenge for Hibs.

They could well prove up to that task but it remains something of a step into the unknown.

Hearts have also won the last four of these clashes and are now undefeated in six. We have to go back to Derek Riordan’s late penalty at Tynecastle in May 2009 for the last Hibs win.

All of which serves to dampen my ardour for proceedings. And yet...

Certainly I’d be disappointed and a touch surprised if Hibs appear as devoid of intent and purpose as they have done in the previous two clashes this season.

This is, for all that they’re relatively untested, a Hibs team with more edge, more thrust and an added stomach for the fight. Hearts should find more resistance as they attempt to impose themselves on Easter Road.

In Richie Towell and Callum Booth the home side have full backs who are capable of giving Hearts’ midfielders and defence pause for thought. Akpo Sodje gives an added dimension in attack, Derek Riordan retains a certain enigmatic quality.

Victor Palsson’s injury in Iceland’s under-21 clash against England is a concern. He’s become a combative component of a midfield that Calderwood has transformed into a more formidable unit. Here’s a 19 year old who does not look like an Edinburgh derby would give him any reason to be fazed.

It’s a different Hibs, a better Hibs.

All of this leaves me searching for a prediction. Into the mix I must throw Hibs’ improvement, Hearts’ slight slips, Hibs’ inactivity, my own pessimism, Hibs’ new faces and the added pressures and dig of a derby clash.

Which, when processed, means?

I really don’t know. I expect this one to be close. I don’t expect Hearts to be able to dictate the way they did earlier in the season.

These are games that rarely throw up treats for the neutral footballing aesthete. If the sides are more evenly matched then we might find the game turning on an individual contribution, be it a flash of brilliance, an honest mistake or a moment of madness.

And that can make a game something of a lottery.

Which drags me inexorably towards predicting a draw. With the proviso that either team could sneak this one by the odd goal.

Apologies if that’s about as decisive as a tactics talk from John Hughes. But there we have it.

I’m feeling sick with nerves already.


Edinburgh Derby Preview: A Hearts Perspective

After two solid months of nothing but Old Firm matches, attention now turns to Easter Road for Scotland’s real showcase football match.  Hearts will be looking to make it five wins in-a-row against their Edinburgh rivals but will surely face a sterner test this time around from a resurgent Hibs team.

Hearts without a number of players

Jim Jefferies is without a number of key players heading into Sunday’s match.  Eggert Jonsson and Adrian Mrowiec are suspended; Kevin Kyle, Lee Wallace and Calum Elliot are all out injured, whereas Rudi Skacel, Marius Zaliukas and Suso Santana are doubts.  Consequently, Hearts find themselves light in almost every area of the pitch.

Whereas Hibs now have a settled back four, the Hearts defence has chopped and changed in recent weeks.  Full-back has proved to be a problem position all season.  Ruben Palazuelos has deputised adequately for long-term absentee Lee Wallace at left-back but his services would have been more beneficial in the centre of midfield due to the lack of options there.

Right-back has been more of an issue and with Jonsson suspended, Craig Thomson looks set to start.  Although a full-back by trade, Thomson has looked unsteady defensively this season and has shown that his best qualities lie in deliveries into the box, be it from open play or from dead ball situations.  He started on the right-wing against Dundee United recently but was moved back to his natural position as a consequence of the erratic and reckless performance of Ismael Bouzid. 

No matter who starts, right-back is a weak spot in the Hearts back four, which will otherwise consist of a central defensive pairing of Andy Webster and Marius Zaliukas, should the Lithuanian pass fit.

Formation and the midfield battle

At half time in their most recent match, and trailing 1-0 at home to St. Mirren, Jefferies switched his side to a 4-4-2, sacrificing holding midfielder Mrowiec in favour of another striker.  Hearts went on to win the match 3-2, however, it would mistaken to deduce from this that they will start with four in midfield and two up front on Sunday.

Hearts were chasing the game and required a dramatic change in approach after an inept first forty-five minutes.  Lining-up with a midfield of Skacel and Black flanked by two wingers would inevitably lead to Hearts losing the midfield battle as Hibs have vastly improved in this area since the last time the sides met.



The starting position of Colin Calderwood’s side sees them line-up in a narrow 4-1-3-2 formation, which becomes a  4-2-3-1 of sorts when Martin Scott pushes on, David Wotherspoon pulls wide right and Derek Riordan drops deep and wide left.  Victor Palsson is deployed as a regista and is vital to Calderwood’s system.  He is also a doubt for Sunday but should he and Skacel overcome their knocks, then this will be one of the game’s key battles.  As well as dictating play from deep, Palsson will be tasked of keeping Skacel quiet, a tactic that a few other sides have successfully employed against Hearts in recent months.

From a Hearts perspective, Skacel is expected to not only create and score goals, but, being in that area of the pitch, to pay close attention to Palsson when not in possession.  Much like the way he nullified the threat of Liam Miller in Hearts’ 2-0 victory at Easter Road earlier in the season.

Martin Scott is another key man in the Hibs midfield.  His energy is exceptional, he looks like he can score goals and is prepared to graft and do the dirty work.  I fear that the central midfield of Hearts, which will likely consist of Black and Stevenson as the holding pair with Skacel in a more advanced position, will be overrun and Hibs will dominate as a consequence.

Goals a worry for Hearts

Despite three goals in their most recent outing, Hearts have struggled for to find the net of late, managing only five in the eight matches previous to the victory over St. Mirren.  The prolonged absence of Kevin Kyle has left Hearts bereft of an adequate target man.  When at their peak this season, the midfield runners of Hearts thrived on Kyle’s ability to hold the ball up and link play.

Hearts have struggled to fill the position since his absence.  Stephen Elliott has been marginally better than the other aspirants and will likely start.  He has displayed an ability to score a few goals despite not being entirely suited to a lone-striking role.  What can be frustrating to watch is when Hearts ignore the obvious mismatch in height between Elliott and most central defenders, yet insist on lumping long balls towards him.

In attack for Hibs, Ricadro Vaz Te looks to be an astute acquisition for Hibs although he has struggled for match fitness.  Even more so now that Hibs have just completed an entire month without a competitive match.  Whether he or Akpo Sodje start, the Hibs attack is an entirely different proposition than in recent Edinburgh derbies.  Derek Riordan was isolated as a lone-striker in Hearts’ 2-0 win at Easter Road earlier in the season and Valdas Trayks was similarly anonymous in the same role at Tynecastle on New Year’s Day.

Prediction

Hibs are the form side going into the match, unbeaten in the last six, even though five of these matches have been against sides in the bottom six.  Nevertheless, how the break has affected Hibs will go a long way to determining the outcome of the match.  It will be interesting to see whether a month without a competitive fixture will have a detrimental effect on them or not.

The home side have a settled back four now, Booth and Towell look dangerous when they push on and Stephen Elliott may struggle to get an inch from Dickoh and Hanlon.  Without Mrowiec and Jonsson, and with Palazuelos required at left-back, Hearts look weak in the centre of the pitch and I expect Palsson, Scott and Miller to dominate.

Hearts have a lot of players missing and will likely get plenty of men behind the ball and attempt to hit on the break, and if players like Templeton, Skacel and Driver hit form, then Hearts always have a chance of scoring.

1-1.

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