A disastrous afternoon in the capital crushed Caley Thistle’s Betfred Cup hopes, with Hearts dishing out a 5-0 hammering.
They only needed to avoid losing by more than three goals to advance to the last 16 but braces from Uche Ikpeazu and Steven Naismith plus Ben Garuccio’s free kick underlined the Jambos’ dominance in a chastening afternoon for Inverness.
They had led the group coming in to Sunday and, thanks to Hearts’ points-deduction for fielding an ineligible player, possessed a three-point cushion in Group C. But they were bullied into submission by rampant Hearts, who advanced to the knockout phase with Caley Jags bowing out.
Charlie Trafford and Jordan White came into the line-up for Inverness, with Nathan Austin and George Oakley dropping to the bench. Craig Levein made three alterations from the 5-0 drubbing of Cowdenbeath with Aaron Hughes, Olly Lee and Uche Ikpeazu in for Michael Smith, Andrew Irving and Kyle Lafferty.
As well as John Robertson, a Hearts legend, in the dugout, Inverness had two ex-Jambos in their side with Mark Ridgers and Brad Mckay both spending their formative years at Tynecastle. Angus Beith, a summer arrival from the Edinburgh outfit, continues to nurse a hip injury and Jake Mulraney, who went the opposite way in that deal, was on the bench.
If the visitors avoided anything more than a three-goal defeat then passage to the last 16 was assured, either as one of the best runners-up or as group-winners. Partick Thistle, who finished with a goal-difference three goals behind the Caley Jags, were on the outside looking in as the fifth best second-placed side.
This was always going to be the Highlanders’ sternest test out of the four Group C opponents but they could ill-afford to gift Hearts chances. Inside 90 seconds Ridgers had a heart-in-mouth moment, screwing a back pass from Carl Tremarco straight to Steven MacLean, which fortunately came to nothing.
MacLean’s strike partner Ikpeazu, a powerful, rangy centre-forward, was wilfully going into battle against Coll Donaldson and Mckay and more often than not came out on top. He was unfortunate that a tumbling Donaldson prevented him from turning in Garuccio’s cross as Hearts unleashed waves of pressure on the Inverness goal.
There was little breathing space for Robertson’s side but, in one moment of respite, they should have turned the tide. Liam Polworth broke and fed Tom Walsh, who had Joe Chalmers moving up on the outside in space. Walsh duly provided the pass and Chalmers went for placement rather than power, only to see his shot roll past Zdenek Zlamal’s far post.
Whatever positives they amassed from the first period were undone by five minutes of madness. Ikpeazu was the beneficiary twice, beating Jordan White to Olly Lee’s corner for his first and steering Garuccio’s back-post cross in for his second, either side of Garuccio whipping in a free kick needlessly conceded by Donaldson.
Caley Thistle showed a semblance of fight before the break, with Walsh and Charlie Trafford calling Zlamal into action, but they were now just a goal away from exiting the competition.
Robertson changed to a 4-4-2 in the second half, moving Walsh alongside White, with the former being one of Caley Thistle’s few effective players. Those with a bit more guile – Walsh, Polworth and Doran – looked like carving an opening for the away side with White offering little. Polworth angled an effort towards the post that had Zlamal scrambling and the Czech stopper repelled Chalmers’s free kick, only for Naismith to sound the death knell for Inverness with a header from Callum Morrison’s cross.
Walsh and Doran were surprisingly replaced with Inverness needing a goal but Hearts showed little interest in relenting, with Lafferty hitting the post with his first touch. Naismith, whose linking of midfield and attack was excellent all afternoon, got a deserved second with nine minutes left in almost-identical fashion from Lee’s cross.
A day to forget for Caley Thistle.
HEARTS (3-4-1-2) – Zlamal 7; Hughes 7, Souttar 7, Berra 7, Morrison 7, Lee 7, Haring 7, Garuccio 7 (McDonald 82), Naismith 8, Ikpeazu 8 (Burns 79), MacLean 7 (Lafferty 67). Subs not used – Doyle, Bozanic, Mulraney, Smith.
CALEY THISTLE (4-3-3) – Ridgers 5; Rooney 4, Donaldson 5, Mckay 5, Tremarco 5 (Calder 57), Chalmers 5, Trafford 6, Polworth 6, Doran 6 (Austin 61), Walsh 6 (MacKay 72), White 4. Subs not used – Hoban, McCart, Oakley, Elbouzedi.
Referee – Willie Collum.
Man of the match: Uche Ikpeazu.