It is an unusual observation to make since they are heavy favourites and are up against a side in the league below. But it’s possible Hearts’ best chance of overcoming Inverness Caledonian Thistle and progressing to the final could be set-pieces.
In fact, not simply could be; rather, seems highly likely. The stats speak for themselves. As many as 21 out of their 38 league goals this season have been from set-plays – that’s 55 per cent. Even in their 5-0 Betfred Cup win over Inverness earlier in the campaign three of Hearts’ goals originated from set-pieces.
It’s clearly no accident. I remember speaking in France with Austin MacPhee prior to Northern Ireland’s last group game against Germany during Euro 2016. When I say prior, I mean it. It was approaching kick-off time and MacPhee was in a pavement café still speaking with the passion of a Parisian street preacher about the advantage to be gained from set-plays – he had an appointment with the World Cup holders Germany in a couple of hours.
“Haven’t you somewhere to be?” I asked. Before he left to catch the team bus to the Parc des Princes stadium he stressed to me the importance of set-pieces: “These are the moments when you can hold all players accountable at the same time and they are precious,” he said.
The evidence again said it all: 11 of Northern Ireland’s 16 goals en route to Euro 2016 were from set-pieces. This is one of MacPhee’s areas of responsibility as Northern Ireland assistant manager, as it is at Hearts, where he’s No 2 to Craig Levein. The Tynecastle manager has already referenced MacPhee’s contribution.
“Austin has been given the time to take that and run with it, he discusses it a lot with Christophe [Berra] and the players to see what routines they want to use in certain games,” he said last month. “They have a little playbook.” You can rest assured the players were consulting it before bedtime in their Glasgow hotel last night to remind themselves of the set-piece ploys devised with Inverness in mind.
As of last weekend, when Peter Haring rose to head in a corner from Olly Lee to open the scoring in the eventual 2-1 defeat by Hibs, Hearts are in the top three in Europe for percentage of goals scored from set-pieces; only Brentford and Atletico Madrid are above them.
With Steven Naismith out injured, David Vanecek still not up to speed and not enough goals coming from their wide players, Hearts need to get goals from wherever they can. This isn’t the time to be sniffy. The high percentage of set-piece goals isn’t necessarily something to boast about; it highlights deficiencies elsewhere.
Vanecek’s situation continues to intrigue. Hearts desperately need someone to provide some spark up top but it’s unlikely he will even feature in the squad today. At least that is what is to be deduced from his appearance in a reserve game against Queen of the South at Palmerston Park on Thursday night, when he did at least score. What’s he doing playing for the stiffs in Dumfries when his team need goals at Hampden?
Under John Robertson, Inverness have emerged as stylish contenders for promotion to the top tier via the play-offs. Few teams will relish facing them and Hearts will certainly feel some apprehension today as they prepare for a season-defining fixture.
Many are describing tomorrow’s meeting between Celtic and Aberdeen as the final before the final. But it’s today’s clash that arguably contains more intrigue.
It’s interesting to wonder what next for Hearts. A lot seems to hinge on these 90 minutes. Win or lose Levein might well be off, by his own volition in the event of the former since it could offer him a deserved opportunity to bow out on the high of a Scottish Cup final appearance.
One thing’s for sure, without their set-piece expertise, Hearts would be in a worse place now.