MANY teams try to get the better of Celtic by stifling the game and minimising the amount of football played. Hearts will attempt to do so, according to Robbie Neilson, by staying true to the positive style of play that has served them so well this season.
The head coach at Tynecastle admitted yesterday that more than a measure of caution will be required when his team take on the champions in their home Scottish Cup tie on Sunday. But he saw enough in their 3-0 League Cup defeat at Parkhead earlier in the season to believe that Hearts do have a chance of upsetting the odds if they play to their best.
“We’ll stick to our principles in that we really want to pass the ball and move the ball and get after the game,” Neilson said. “But we may also need to change it a little bit to try and combat them. We’re playing against a very good team, so we must make sure we work on our defensive side a lot more than we probably would against other teams.
“I think we can compete if we pass the ball. [In the League Cup match] we found it difficult in the wide areas with their movement – that’s something we’ve been working on to try and combat this week.
“It’s a different environment – they’re coming to Tynecastle, it’s going to be another big crowd, and it’s the Scottish Cup, which has another effect on the game as well. If we do the things we can do properly, pass it and move it and combat a lot of their stuff, then we’ve got a chance.
“It’s another good test for us coming off the back of the Rangers match,” he continued, referring to the 2-0 home win last week that preserved Hearts’ unbeaten run in the Championship and stretched their lead at the top to nine points. “You want to play Celtic when you’re confident, and we’re under no illusions that they’re a good team. It’s going to be a really hard one for us – it’s a step up again.
“Celtic are probably the top team in Scotland at the moment, so we know what to expect. It’s always a huge game when Celtic play Hearts, no matter what league we’re in. They’re all must-win games at Celtic, and we know that coming to Tynecastle in the Scottish Cup they’ll be desperate to win it.
“It’s Tynecastle, it’s Celtic, so we’ll need to make sure we put out our strongest team out of the fit players that we’ve got. This match is not like the Petrofac where we put a lot of young players in, or even the League Cup where we made a couple of changes. We’ll go strong and try and win the game.”
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While the 3-0 League Cup defeat at Parkhead was a respectable loss, the same could not be said of last year’s Scottish Cup match at Tynecastle. Hearts, then under Gary Locke, turned in one of their worst performances of the season against a Celtic team who were firing on all cylinders, and the result was a humiliating 7-0 defeat.
Of the 14 players on duty for Hearts that day, eight are still at the club, and it would be fair to say they have matured considerably since then. What is more, there is a new coaching team in place, and the squad has been strengthened by key signings such as Morgaro Gomis and Prince Buaben, so it came as no surprise when Neilson said that last December’s reverse had not been a topic of conversation this week.
“It’s not been mentioned. It’s a different regime, a different team and a different group of players as well, and Celtic will be different too. That was a difficult day for Hearts last season. I’m sure the players that were involved will have learned a lot from it – they’ll realise the kind of opposition that they’re up against come Sunday. Things have changed at this club and there’s a different mentality about the place now.”
That mentality – tougher, more competitive, more assertive – was certainly in evidence against Rangers last week. Hearts played poorly at first, but maintained their discipline well, in contrast to Ally McCoist’s team, who were fortunate only to have one player sent off.
“I was pleased with the way we handled the atmosphere and didn’t get drawn into anything overly physical,” added Neilson, who will be without Kevin McHattie for six weeks after the full-back was injured in a challenge by Kenny Miller. “When we had the ball we still tried to pass it.
“If we’d gone toe to toe with Rangers it might have been difficult for us. We’re a young team and the players don’t have the physicality yet of a lot of the Rangers players and we knew we had to approach it in a different way.
“A physical game is not something that suits us. We didn’t want to go into a game and say we were going to be physical, because we don’t have a lot of physicality and we needed to make sure that we played our strengths. Our strengths are passing and moving and getting people running.
“We knew it would be a hard contest and the first 30 minutes was difficult as we failed to implement some things. I’ve watched a re-run of the match and I saw the challenges again. It’s disappointing to lose Kevin: he’s been doing really well this season as he came in and did a terrific job and offered us a real attacking threat. He’ll just need to see it as an opportunity to work in the gym and get himself back in better condition than when he left.”
Rangers striker Jon Daly suggested after the game that Hearts had over-reacted to some of the tackles by his team-mates – a comment that drew a diplomatic rebuke from Neilson. “I know Jon really well from my time at Dundee United – he’s a good guy. I think after the game you’re not seeing things clearly.
“It’s only when you watch it again that you realise what went on. I’m sure when Jon watches it again he’ll probably think it’s something he wouldn’t have said in hindsight.”
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