HEARTS hope that new loan signing Michael Ngoo can solve their problems up front – starting this afternoon in the League Cup semi-final against Inverness Caledonian Thistle.
The giant Englishman is set to start the match at Easter Road after finalising his move from Liverpool yesterday, and Hearts manager John McGlynn believes he could unsettle opponents whose fine recent form has taken them to second place in the SPL.
Ngoo, who has joined Hearts for the rest of the season, is the club’s second signing of the transfer window, following his Liverpool team-mate Danny Wilson. The 20-year-old trained with the squad yesterday, and McGlynn is confident he can slot in immediately as Hearts bid to reach their first League Cup final since 1996.
“He could be something that Inverness hasn’t bargained for,” McGlynn said of the 6ft 6in England youth international. “He could be a surprise package.
“He’s very similar to Danny in that he’s been playing regularly. The English Under-21 teams didn’t have much of a break over Christmas and New Year, so he’s been playing and he’s match-fit and raring to go.
“I don’t want to put too much pressure on him. It’s not fair to think that he’s going to batter every ball that comes into the box into the back of the net. However, we hope that he’s going to improve our goalscoring tally.”
Ngoo has been at Anfield since 2009, when he moved from Southend. “He’s come from a big football club,” McGlynn continued. “Liverpool paid a bit of money for him, so they have high hopes for him.
“It was the priority position for us. I said last week that when there’s a player like Danny Wilson, you can never have enough good players about. You take good players any time. It probably helped that Danny is now here as he obviously knows the lad. He spoke to Michael and gave him a good report on the football club.”
Ngoo had an impressive first season with Liverpool’s youth teams, and although his 2010-11 campaign was disrupted by injury, he finished second top scorer for the under-18s with 15 goals. “I’m honoured to be here,” he said yesterday after completing his move to Tynecastle. “I’m delighted and happy to be at such a big team and I’m ready to go.”
Hearts have yet to settle on a successful formula up front this season, with McGlynn having begun with a 4-5-1 formation then latterly switched to 4-4-2. Teenager Callum Paterson, who is out of today’s game with a foot injury, was played as a lone striker at first, but he is more suited to a wider role.
More recently John Sutton and Gordon Smith have played as Hearts’ strike pairing, but have not hit it off consistently. If Sutton were to regain the form he enjoyed at Motherwell he would merit a place in the team every week, but he has not been the force he was since falling out of favour last season under previous manager Paulo Sergio.
Ninth in the SPL at present, Hearts have managed just under a goal a game in the league. Had they failed to complete the signature of Ngoo on time, their problems in attack would have been worsened this afternoon by the suspension of Ryan Stevenson, whose powerful running from midfield has been a useful source of goals.
With holding midfielder Darren Barr also suspended, McGlynn has little choice but to field a relatively lightweight combination in the centre of the park. Scott Robinson, Mehdi Taouil and Jason Holt are all in contention for places in the starting line-up, although Denis Prychynenko’s extra height and bulk should bring him into consideration too.
With Ngoo an unknown quantity in the Scottish game, the strongest department of the Hearts team is sure to be the defence, in which four centre-halves will be strung along the back. Wilson will slot in at left-back, Andy Webster and Marius Zaliukas will resume their partnership at centre-half, and Dylan McGowan should be at right-back.
Given how successful Caley Thistle have been in attack this season, it is just as well from Hearts’ point of view that they will have such a relatively strong back four. Unless they are counting on a free-scoring miracle of a debut from Ngoo, the Edinburgh side should aim to keep play as tight as possible, realising that if Inverness open the scoring it will be extremely difficult to get back into the contest.
Caley Thistle have never won a major semi-final, but in Terry Butcher they have a manager who is at home in big games and pressurised situations. The former England international was in charge of Motherwell when they took on Hearts at Easter Road in the semi-final eight years ago, and he inspired them to a 3-2 extra-time victory after Hearts came back from a 2-0 deficit.