CRAIG LEVEIN, the Hearts manager, accepts Sunday’s meeting with Celtic will represent a surreal phoney war.

However, he hopes the Parkhead side wilt under the pressure when the real battle commences six days later.

Celtic manager Neil Lennon was typically candid as he laid down his credentials to replace Brendan Rodgers on a permanent basis this week, discussing the increasing sense of entitlement among a ‘new breed’ of fan who have known nothing but success.

That will undoubtedly extend to an expectation that Celtic will see off the underperforming Hearts at Hampden next weekend to complete the storied treble treble.

By comparison, Levein contends that excitement, rather than trepidation, is the overriding feeling among the Tynecastle faithful. As overwhelming underdogs, it is a potential benefit he welcomes.

“Neil has done a really good job for Celtic and, if you look at his longevity, he was there for a long time as a player, and was very successful,” said Levein. “This is his second spell as a manager and, again, he’s been very successful.

“But I think it’s just the way the game is. People expect the best – or above! This isn’t a job to do if you are prepared to lower your sights at any point.

“Neil has got his own pressures to deal with. The kind of pressure Celtic are under is a good thing, because they’re trying to achieve something that has never been done before. It depends on how they deal with it. It could work in our favour in the final.

“We’re not often in cup finals, so there’s an air of excitement attached to it, rather than pressure. We’re facing excitement – and that will help our players.

"On our best we know can compete with Celtic and we know we can beat them. We've done it already this season and if I can get our key players fit and available then it increases our chances of being successful.”

However, tomorrow’s encounter in Glasgow’s East End is unlikely to offer many clues as to the destination of the trophy, with both sides expected to field vastly changed sides and hand opportunities to fringe players and youngster.

Asked whether he’ll seek to wrong-foot Lennon with his line-up, Levein smiled: “Yeah, but we both know they're fake hands.”

“It is a bit strange,” he continued. “My main focus has been on the final. So that has really shaped my thoughts for this game.

“I’m protecting some injured players, resting some players and playing more young boys than we would normally.

“When I look at it, the benefits to the young players are obvious, whereas there are older guys who will benefit from more training time and one less game. The young players will benefit from playing in this atmosphere, so it makes sense.

“I still hope to get a win, that’s my first thought. I don’t want to be sitting on Monday morning with any injuries, that’s also important – and I’m sure Celtic will be the same – but the game will be competitive because, they always are.”

Key trio Peter Haring, Uche Ikpeazu and Arnaud Djoum – all struggling with knocks – are among those who will be wrapped in cotton wool in a bid to ensure they are fit and firing for the final.

“I'm hopeful of having all three,” added Levein. “I can't say with absolute certainty that they're going to be available but we've given them the best chance possible.”

Haring, in particular faces a fraught race to be in contention, having not featured since Hearts' semi-final victory over Inverness on April 13 due to a pelvis complaint.

"Fitness-wise he's doing a lot of non-weight bearing work and heart and lungs stuff,” explained Levein. “He's not going to be 100 per cent but if we get him up to the point where he can affect the cup final that would be positive.”

Meanwhile, Sean Clare is determined to make the most of his final opportunity to impress as Levein ponders who should line up in maroon at Hampden.

“I don’t think the pressure’s off at all,” added the midfielder. “I don’t know for sure – but I wouldn’t have thought the manager has picked his team exactly right now. I’m sure if you go there and toss the game off and don’t do things properly, you could easily find yourself out the team.

“I don’t think anyone here is like that. We’re all professional players and as soon as we get on that pitch we’ll be focused on doing our best for the team and for ourselves.”