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|<-Page||<-Team||Sun 07 May 2006 Rangers 2 Hearts 0||Team->||Page->|
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|Valdas Ivanauskas||<-auth||Glenn Gibbons||auth->||Iain Brines|
|[K Boyd 36] ;[K Boyd 74]|
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Hearts hold all the aces but Gretna up for fight
THE Tennent's Scottish Cup final may appear about as unbalanced as a see-saw with one rider, but there is an underlying aspect of the match which brings a poignancy that is common to each of the protagonists. For a number of personnel at Hearts and Gretna, this afternoon's great showdown at Hampden Park is likely to be a farewell appearance.
Rowan Alexander, the Gretna manager, conceded that this will be the last occasion on which his Second Division champions will play together, the consequence of a summer recruitment drive to cope with the more rigorous challenges of the First Division next season.
For the Tynecastle coach, Valdas Ivanauskas, as well as several players whose futures at the club are equally uncertain, the event is likely to represent a first and last experience of the climactic match in the country's oldest tournament.
When asked about his prospects of being invited to remain in charge for next season and beyond, Ivanauskas remained as inscrutable as he has been since succeeding Graham Rix on a temporary basis in March.
"This is Mr [Vladimir] Romanov's decision," he shrugged. "If Mr Romanov wants, I stay; if he does not, I go." It would be misleading to interpret the Lithuanian coach's uncomplicated summary of his position as indifference. He does seem, in fact, to be enjoying his work and, cutting through his halting English, it is reasonable to infer that he is keen to lead the team into the Champions League next season.
Like Ivanauskas, Rudi Skacel, Edgaras Jankauskas, Julien Brellier and Andy Webster of Hearts' regular first picks are facing indeterminate futures. Brellier may lose his place in the midfield anchor role to Bruno Aguiar this afternoon, but Skacel, the Czech midfielder, and Jankauskas, the Lithuanian striker, seem likely starters. Webster is in the squad but Ivanauskas refused to say if he would start.
For Alexander, a staff overhaul is not a probability, but a certainty. The Gretna manager is clearly grateful to a squad who have distinguished themselves in both league and cup throughout a thrillingly rewarding campaign, but he is too ambitious and too focused on future targets to allow his the slightest hint of stagnation.
"Our players know this will be the last time they will all play together," said Alexander. "They know the demands that will be made of us the First Division and that they will be much greater than they were in the Second.
"We've shown from the outset that we intend to continue to develop and to progress. We will have to sign players of a higher quality, some with younger, stronger legs, for what we face next season if we are to continue to progress. And I don't mean just signing British players, but foreigners, too.
"But we've pulled a lot of these present players out of clubs where they might have been seeing the end of their careers approaching and perhaps just fizzling out. But they have applied themselves and they have been fantastic throughout the season.
"Now they have a chance to end with something very special. Like everyone else involved with our club, the players have earned what they've got. And we're not just here to make up the numbers in the final. We've always encouraged a winning mentality among them, and that's what they have now."
Even if Gretna approach the great occasion with a certain insouciance - based on their no-lose situation, since they are already assured of UEFA Cup football - Alexander is astute enough to recognise that it would be unrealistic not to acknowledge the strength of his opponents and the damage they are likely to inflict if not properly harnessed.
"Of course, we know what a strong team they are," he said. "If Hearts play to their full potential, it will be very hard against a team of their capabilities. I'm equally sure, though, that if we play to our full potential, it will be a good match. There are no question marks against our players' temperaments.
"But you look at a player like Paul Hartley and know you can't ignore him. He triggers and then controls the tempo of a game. He causes more trouble than anyone else, he is full of energy, he closes people down, and he hurts teams.
"We simply have to try to match Hearts in every area, get close to them and prevent them from establishing a tempo and a rhythm. They play two-touch football and, when they're doing that as well as they can, it is very demanding of opponents. The ball doesn't tire, it's players who tire, and Hearts are good at getting the ball to do the work and exhausting the opposition.
"We'll have to start strongly, because Hearts have shown throughout the season that that is what they do. I'm certain the game will be physical, because Hearts are muscular as well as skilful."
If the semi-finals contested by today's combatants are to be used as a gauge, the visual evidence suggests that anything other than a convincing victory for the long odds-on favourites is inconceivable.
Even if Hibernian were weakened by the unavailability of several influential players, Hearts' 4-0 defeat of their neighbours - featuring a hat-trick from the irrepressible Hartley - was so comprehensive that it is impossible to imagine Gretna having the pace or the strength to compete.
It is also one of Hearts' most powerful weapons that they are psychologically robust, littered with players whose self-motivation suggests that the absence of a manager would not be a serious inconvenience. This impression is surely confirmed by the manner in which they have prospered throughout a season in which they have come under the control of four different head coaches.
As Alexander said, success for Gretna would probably be the greatest cup achievement in the 133-year history of the tournament, given the short four years they have been playing league football.
A dispassionate view of the level of performance of which the respective contestants seem capable, however, forces the neutral observer to conclude that the fantasy is extremely unlikely to become reality.
• Hearts striker Roman Bednar says he is certain to remain with the Gorgie club next season. Bednar, who joined last summer on a one-year loan deal from FBK Kaunas, has met with Hearts owner Vladimir Romanov and expects to sign a new deal after the cup final.
The Czech Under-21 international said: "I have spoken with Mr Romanov and I am 100 per cent definitely staying at Hearts next season, I am very happy here. I have not signed anything yet but I am hoping to do that after the cup final. I love it in Edinburgh and the supporters have been very nice to me since I arrived."
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