HEARTS were handed as tough a test as they could have hoped for prior to their return to competitive action later this week against an Everton side replete with first-team stars.
There was little mercy offered by Roberto Martinez when it came to his team selection. He picked a side that would not have looked out of place on league business at places such as Old Trafford and Anfield.
So Everton’s first visit to Tynecastle since 1993 ended with the victory expected from such a talented and expensively assembled outfit. Even first-choice goalkeeper Tim Howard, who was listed as being on the bench on the team-sheet, had materialised in goal by the time the game kicked off.
But it was £28 million man Romelu Lukaku who did the damage, scoring a hat-trick inside 50 minutes and passing up several chances to complete an even more impressive personal haul. If it was a familiar-looking Everton side, the same could be said for Hearts, for whom full-back Calum Paterson opened the scoring with a header.
Despite several new signings, only one – Igor Rossi – made Robbie Neilson’s starting XI. Gavin Reilly, recruited from Queen of the South, came on as a substitute midway through the second half. Nigerian left-back Juwon Oshaniwa is still awaiting a work permit, while Polish defender Blazej Augustyn and Spanish striker Juanma are both injured.
There were times in the second half, after a splurge of substitutions, when the game began to resemble a training session for Everton, as they pulled the home defence this way and that. It wasn’t a fair fight by this stage and Hearts were glad both Aiden McGeady and Steven Pienaar were ruled out of contention for Everton due to injury.
But Martinez was still able to bring on Scotland international Steven Naismith and England winger Ross Barkley while Hearts were swapping goalkeepers – Jack Hamilton for Neil Alexander. In midfield, the 17-year-old Sean McKirdy passed a physically challenging test against opponents whose superior athleticism and bulk was clear for all to see.
So there was no reason to be too disheartened by a two-goal defeat although Lukaku, among others, did pass up several chances to add to Everton’s tally. As so often is the case in games that are otherwise fairly one-sided, Hearts struck first with an opening goal that embarrassed an Everton rearguard, including the highly regarded central defensive pairing of John Stones and Phil Jagielka.
But it was the less strapping full-back Leon Osman who was, perhaps unwisely, deployed to deal with the aerial threat of Paterson, who rose to meet a Kevin McHattie corner to put Hearts in front after only nine minutes.
Everton were slow to get in their stride, but when they did, they proved they could be devastatingly effective when they wanted to be.
Osman should have done better with a chance to equalise from the edge of the box that he drove well wide of the target. But Everton drew level just a few minutes later, much to the Hearts fans’ displeasure. It was difficult to ascertain just who referee Willie Collum had seen handle the ball from a Gareth Barry effort on the rebound after Alexander saved a Lukaku header, but new skipper Alim Ozturk appeared to be the culprit.
In the eyes of the home fans it was Collum who was, of course, to blame. But Lukaku could not concern himself with the now considerably sized ledger of perceived grievances of several thousand Hearts fans towards this particular referee, and slotted home the award.
Osman should then have scored with a header when left unmarked from Leighton Baines’ corner. At other times, Everton seemed guilty of wanting to walk the ball into the net. But Lukaku did strike in lethal fashion in 35 minutes to give his side the lead with a left-foot drive after Coleman’s pass. Everton might have made it 3-1 just before half-time but Kevin Mirallas clipped the ball wide from Lukaku’s pass.
There was little debate about the penalty that saw Everton stretch their lead just three minutes after the interval. Kevin McHattie fell victim to some Mirallas trickery just inside the box with the Belgian tripping over the defender’s trailing leg. Lukaku made no mistake from the spot once more.
Howard was called into action to save an effort from substitute Billy King but that aside the game’s competitive edge had begun to fade, not helped by the spate of substitutions from both sides between the 60-70 minute marks. All 18 Hearts players listed in the squad saw some action.
“I thought it was a very, very good exercise,” said Everton manager Roberto Martinez. “The pitch was in fantastic condition. Hearts, as a team, try to play and that made for a very good work-out for both sides.”
Hearts: Alexander (Hamilton, 77), Paterson, McHattie, McGhee, Ozturk (King, 46), Rossi (L Smith, 69), Gomis (Anderson, 67), McKirdy (Buchnan, 78), Nicholson, Walker (Oliver, 78), Sow (Reilly, 65).
Everton: Howard, Baines (Oviedo, 64), Stones, Jagielka, Kone (Naismith, 78), Lukaku (Barkley, 78), Mirallas (Dowell, 82), McCarthy (Cleverley, 46), Barry, Osman, Coleman. Subs not used: Robles, Browning, Pennington, McAleny, Ledson, Robinson.