London Hearts Supporters Club

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<-Srce <-Type Scotsman ------ Report Type-> Srce->
Csaba Laszlo <-auth Stuart Bathgate auth-> Calum Murray
10 of 023 ----- L SPL H

Capital pair go head to head for eight season-defining days

Chief sports writer
TWO SEPARATE matches. Two different competitions. One eight-day period which promises to be the most engrossing in Edinburgh football for years.
Part one is today, when Hearts are at home to Hibernian in the SPL. Part two comes a week tomorrow, when Hibs are at home in the fourth round of the Scottish Cup. Between them, those two small chapters could determine the story of the season for both sides.

One obvious difference between the two games is that if today's match ends even after 90 minutes, there's an end to it, whereas parity tomorrow week would necessitate a replay back at Tynecastle. But that distinction is unlikely to have an inordinate influence on either manager. It all points to a tactical game of cat and mouse.

There will need to be an eventual winner of the cup match, but neither Csaba Laszlo nor Mixu Paatelainen will throw caution to the wind in search of a first-time victory. Paatelainen, the Hibs manager, would rather make home advantage count, yet he will not be too dissatisfied with a draw. Similarly, if the Easter Road game ends all square, Laszlo will be happy enough, believing his team to have the upper hand.

By the same token, a draw this afternoon will allow both sides to go into the cup match with their morale still buoyant. Hearts lie fourth, five points ahead of sixth-placed Hibs with a game in hand (the match against Motherwell which will take place next Wednesday and complicates matters somewhat for Laszlo). Neither team is at all sure of a top-six place, but, with more than a dozen games to go before the split, we have not reached the make-or-break stage of the season yet.

Both Laszlo and Paatelainen may insist they are looking at this match in isolation rather than as the first instalment of a two-parter, and if either team allows next week to enter its thoughts too much today it could well be punished. But it will be impossible for the players to banish the cup match from their minds. They – and both sets of supporters – know that whatever happens today there will be little time for a breather before the rivalry resumes.

So what will happen today? The fixture is always a difficult one to predict, but the task is made harder than usual here because of the absence of first-choice defenders from either team. Hearts may be thought worse off, having lost both Lee Wallace and Marius Zaliukas from their first-choice back four, and the lack of Wallace's speed in tracking back could cost them if Hibs stretch the game in midfield. But, having lost a captain as well as a centre-back in Rob Jones, Hibs may find it hard to replace the Englishman's leadership qualities.

They certainly struggled last week, going down 4-2 to Kilmarnock in a match from which Jones was forced to depart because of a muscle strain. But Hearts were also far from perfect seven days ago, losing at Pittodrie and having Wallace and Zaliukas sent off.

Still, while both teams are inconsistent – and, as the Hibs left-back Ian Murray said last week, every team in the SPL can be said to suffer from that defect – Hearts appear more sure of how they want to play from one match to the other. Laszlo tends to ramble on when he meets the media, and may thus come across as a touch irrational, but he is sharp and precise when it comes to tactics. His preference for a five-man midfield has at times left Hearts looking short of firepower up front, but in the absence of a regular goal-getter he is convinced that others are more than capable of getting on the scoresheet.

"The coach of Hibs will be looking at us and thinking 'No Zaliukas and Wallace and they aren't scoring up front', but we believe we're dangerous from every position," Laszlo asserted. "We don't just rely on our strikers to score, because players such as Eggert Jonsson and Christophe Berra can also find the net."

Laszlo's preference has been to have Christos Karipidis in the holding role ahead of two central midfielders with two others out wide. The suspension of Zaliukas may lead the manager to withdraw Karipidis into the back four, but at least he knows his ideal formation.

Paatelainen, conversely, appears unsure of either. The Finn tried a 4-3-3 line-up for a while after Derek Riordan returned to Hibs, but latterly he has opted for a 4-4-2. And there have been two contrasting shapes in which he has laid out that midfield quartet: a tight, regular one in which Sol Bamba and Steven Thicot have both played centrally and deep; and a more fluid formation in which Dean Shiels has played wide right with Thicot dropping out.

With his compatriot Jonatan Johansson now on the books, Paatelainen has an extra option to think about. The former Rangers and Charlton striker is unlikely to start today, but is fit enough to be named in the squad and could make an impact coming off the bench.

Normally the most diplomatic of men, Laszlo was happy to suggest that the changes made by Paatelainen proved the existence of a degree of uncertainty within Easter Road. "Before, he played 4-3-3 and now it's 4-4-2," he said. "He changed tactics because it was not so successful and now there is some confusion in the team."

From Hibs' point of view, the positive aspect of this 'confusion' is that they are less predictable. The likes of Riordan and John Rankin by no means fire on all cylinders every week, but they are capable of producing the unexpected.

Without the injured Bruno Aguiar – the playmaker is expected to be available for the cup tie – Hearts are less inventive, both from open play and at the set piece. If they are to prevail today, they will need another midfielder to take on the Aguiar role and offer some back-up to the sole striker.

Whatever happens, and it would be foolish to bet too heavily against a draw, it is sure to be an engrossing game. All the more so because it is the first instalment of a double-header, and a manager who loses today will have precious little time in which to think up a way of making the difference in Part Two.

Taken from the Scotsman

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