Sunday, April 03, 2011

Hibs v Hearts: The Tynecastle View

Hibs v Hearts possible line ups
The first of The Scottish Football Blog's derby day previews comes from Craig Cairns, the force behind Three at the Back and a supporter of the boys in maroon:

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 starts, 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.

Follow Craig on Twitter @Threeattheback