It is often claimed that cup finals are a one-off. But, this term, there is some merit in that argument, according to Hearts manager Craig Levein.
Even though Saturday’s meeting between Hearts and Celtic will be their sixth head to head of the season, the national stadium is the latest variable in a list that already includes different competitions, managerial configurations and a range of venues.
The teams have not faced each other at Hampden since a Craig Beattie winner sent Hearts to the 2012 Scottish Cup final, and the setting does mean that every single meeting this term has given the teams something different to contend with. This time, it’s Neil Lennon in the opposite dugout.
“This is the first time in a few years that Hearts have played Celtic at Hampden and the cup brings different feelings,” said the Tynecastle manager. “This isn’t the same as a league game and Lenny might play different personnel, so it won’t be the same as playing a Brendan [Rodgers, the former Celtic boss] team.”
Rodgers took charge of the first three matches. The first, a league meeting at Tynecastle, resulted in a Hearts win; the second, the League Cup semi-final, was a Celtic triumph, at Murrayfield; the third was an easy 5-0 Premiership win for Celtic, at Celtic Park.
While the fourth was another league game back in Gorgie, Rodgers’ departure meant there was a new man in the mix and, with Lennon at the helm, the champions enjoyed victory. Today the teams will contest the final league match at Parkhead, before switching competitions and venues for next weekend’s finale.
The matches thus far have been a mixed bag, with both teams experiencing wins and Hearts conjuring up the kind of performances, on occasion, that offers Levein hope of winning at Hampden.
But the League Cup semi-final also serves as a reminder of how difficult Celtic will make that objective if Hearts fail to reach their performance peak.
“The Murrayfield game was probably right in the middle of Brendan’s era in terms of the way Celtic played,” he said. “Things are now slightly different.”
Add to that injuries and niggles to key players in each squad and while there will be no major curve balls, the line-up and approach may not be either manager’s first choice.
“We both have niggles, little injuries, to worry about, so I do see it as a one-off. That’s the way to look at it. Things are slightly different on our front and that of Celtic.
“They are a bit like us in that we know their players and how they play. We know their strengths and weaknesses. I have played against Lenny’s team a lot so I don’t think either of us will be surprised about what the other does..”
The pressures on both teams are different, though. With both managers looking to win over fans who remain unconvinced they are the best men to take their respective clubs forward, Levein is seeking his first trophy as a player or manager, while Celtic are on the brink of history and a treble treble.
“I don’t know if that’s more pressure on them or not,” said Levein. “What I do know is you only get one cup winner’s medal not three. We want to win it for us and for our supporters. I’m not interested in anything else.”