Scottish Cup final preview: Hearts have history but Celtic hold all the aces

Cup final captains, Christophe Berra of Hearts and Scott Brown of Celtic. Picture: Steve Welsh
Cup final captains, Christophe Berra of Hearts and Scott Brown of Celtic. Picture: Steve Welsh
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It is a rarity for Celtic to go into a contest where they have an inferior head-to-head record with their opponents.

For any Hearts supporters seeking a straw to clutch at this afternoon, the Tynecastle club’s previous Scottish Cup final results against Celtic might be just about as good as it gets.

It is both a tenuous and quirky basis for optimism among the Gorgie faithful. One of the curiosities of Scottish football history is that the paths of two of its most storied clubs have only ever crossed three times in the 133 past editions of the nation’s showpiece fixture.

Hearts hold a 2-1 lead over Celtic in that particular mini-series, their 3-1 victory in the most recent final between the clubs back in 1956 still regarded as one of their greatest and most significant days.

Given the unparalleled level of Celtic’s current dominance of Scottish football, victory for Craig Levein and his squad at Hampden today would rank just as highly for those of a maroon persuasion. There is unlikely to be a stampede to the bookies, however, to snap up the odds of 7-2 on Hearts to lift the famous old trophy for a ninth time.

Celtic are prohibitive 1-5 favourites to retain the silverware for obvious and inarguable reasons. They have been utterly ruthless operators on domestic cup duty ever since Brendan Rodgers arrived on the scene as manager in the summer of 2016, his high profile appointment prompted by the Scottish Cup semi-final defeat to Rangers earlier that year.

Since then, Celtic have racked up a record run of 26 consecutive victories in domestic cup ties – 12 in the League Cup and 14 in the Scottish Cup – to underpin a relentless success story which now sees them on the verge of claiming a third successive domestic treble.

If any of their putative rivals had hoped to see a chink in their armour emerge following Rodgers’ hasty departure to Leicester City in February, they have so far been disappointed. Interim manager Neil Lennon has picked up the baton smoothly, overseeing two potentially awkward Scottish Cup obstacles with a 2-0 win over Hibs at Easter Road in the quarter-finals and the convincing 3-0 semi-final swatting of Aberdeen at Hampden.

All told, Celtic have eliminated three Premiership sides on their road to the final this season and have yet to concede a goal in the tournament. By contrast, Hearts have enjoyed a relatively benign passage with Livingston, beaten 1-0 in the fourth round, their only top flight opponents.

It doesn’t matter how you reach the final, of course, only that you get there. Hearts have earned the opportunity to conclude a mixed bag of a season on the highest note imaginable. While Celtic are clearly the class act on display, it is nonetheless a meeting of clubs who can both boast a good pedigree in the recent history of the competition. Between them, Celtic and Hearts have won nine of the last 15 Scottish Cup finals.

If Hearts are to add to the triumphs of 2006 and 2012 they recorded during that period, they will have to defy a dismal run of form which has seen them lose six of their last eight games. Their only victory in that spell was the 3-0 Scottish Cup semi-final elimination of Inverness Caledonian Thistle and there has certainly been a sense that Levein’s eggs have all been firmly placed in the one basket for the last couple of months.

Hearts’ Premiership campaign, which carried so much promise in the opening three months of the season, has faded almost pitifully with the manager bearing the brunt of discontent among the club’s support over the style of football being produced.

All would be forgiven if Levein can conjure up a game plan which upsets the odds today and lands him what would be the first major trophy of his career as either a player of manager. If he does find a way to win, it is unlikely to be aesthetically pleasing. A key factor for Hearts will be the capability of robust striker Uche Ikpeazu to unsettle the Celtic defence, while Levein’s own back line will have to be at their most focused and tactically diligent.

When it comes to assessing potential match winners, Celtic look to hold all the aces. While some of their performances this season have lacked the zest and cohesion which became their trademark under Rodgers, they still possess the mentality he instilled which allows them to handle the big occasions so well. Their proficiency in coping with the demands of this particular fixture, in fact, pre-date Rodgers by some distance. Celtic have not lost a Scottish Cup final since 2002, winning on each of their seven appearances since.

As if they required any further incentive today on top of their bid for a ‘treble treble’, they could also become the first Celtic team to win the Scottish Cup three years in a row, a feat only previously achieved by Queen’s Park, Rangers and Aberdeen.

When they have a date with history, this group of Celtic players invariably turn up. The law of averages will catch up with Celtic eventually but Hearts are likely to discover Scottish football’s dominant force remain firmly out of reach this afternoon.