Walker on Sunshine
Hearts made it four wins out of four in Group A courtesy of Jamie Walker’s second half strike. Jamie McIntosh reports.
The Jambos came into the game with nine points out of a possible nine, but still needed to win by two goals in order to be seeded for the round of 16 draw.
Liam Boyce has started the way he left off last season, scoring in Hearts’ three previous matches and, despite playing in a slightly deeper role today, he was the first Jambo to test Mark Ridgers.
Receiving the ball on the corner of the 18-yard box, the striker sent a ferocious effort towards goal, but his effort was beaten away by the former Hearts stopper.
The visitors had started well, Inverness were composed when in possession and looked dangerous on the break in what had been a lively opening 20 minutes.
Hearts came close again just after the half hour mark. Wallace Duffy left a pass-back short and the returning Aramnd Gnanduillet was on to it, his left footed strike was well matched by the left boot of Ridgers, who kept his side on level terms.
Alex Cochrane has quietly gone about his business since joining the Tynecastle side, but he came up with a crucial block ten minutes before the interval.
Tom Walsh was picked out at the back post by Shane Sutherland, who brought the ball down perfectly, but his volley was diverted over by the defender, much to the relief of Craig Gordon in the Hearts goal.
Just when it looked like the action was done for the opening 45 minutes, Hearts had the best chance of the half. Josh Ginnelly got to the byline and drilled a low cross in for Finlay Pollock. He diverted the ball towards goal only to be denied by Ridgers, who dived instantly to his right to prevent the Hearts youngster from scoring his second goal in as many games.
Nine minutes into the second half and Ridgers was called into action again. Ginnelly’s cross from the right was over Gnanduillet but found the onrushing Gary Mackay-Steven, whose volley was parried behind.
Hearts were getting closer, and from the resulting corner, they couldn’t have gone any closer. Cochrane’s low corner was flicked goal wards by Gnanduillet, his effort came back off the near post, but fell to Pollock, who struck the same post with the rebound. Inverness scrambled the ball to safety and somehow remained on level terms.
Peter Haring and Jamie Walker were introduced with 25 minutes to go as Robbie Neilson’s side continued to search for the opening goal.
The deadlock was finally broken after 74 minutes. Gnanduillet had endured a tough afternoon against the Caley defence, but when he won a vital flick on to find Boyce, Hearts had a two-on-one scenario. The Northern Irishman had the awareness to pick out the substitute with a perfectly weighted through ball and Walker did the rest, drilling the ball low into the bottom corner past Ridgers to give the hosts a deserved lead.
Walker nearly scored his and Hearts’ second with three minutes to go. Another Hearts sub, Euan Henderson linked with Mackay-Steven before the ball was squared for the goal-scorer. This time though, his effort was somehow kept out by Ridgers as the hosts advantage remained a single goal.
The Hearts number seven was again involved in the final minute of the 90, sieved down by his opposite number Michael Gardyne. Due to the scissored nature of the challenge referee Nick Walsh had little option but to wave the red card in the direction of the Inverness winger.
Hearts pressed for a second in the five additional minutes but failed to find the goal that would see them seeded for the next round. As a result, Hearts have been tasked with heading to Parkhead to take on Ange Postecoglou’s Celtic in the round of 16 tie to be played on the weekend of 14/15 August.
It means the Jambos will take on the Celtic twice in a matter of weeks, as attention in Gorgie now turns to Saturday’s league meeting between the sides at Tynecastle.