HEARTS will need to get the better of the country’s leading goalkeeper if they are to prevail against Celtic tonight, according to Robbie Neilson.
The head coach at Tynecastle knows at first hand how good Craig Gordon is, having played in the same team as him for Hearts a decade ago. While aware of how formidable an opponent the 31-year-old will be, Neilson is pleased that Gordon is back after years struggling against injury, and predicted yesterday that he could still make a return to the top flight in England, where he spent five years with Sunderland.
“I’m delighted for Craig Gordon,” said Neilson, who will select his strongest possible team for tonight’s third-round League Cup tie. “He’s a great keeper. If he can get himself anywhere near fit then he’s the top keeper in Scotland, if not Britain.
“He had some fantastic saves against Red Bull Salzburg [in the Europa League last week].”
Towards the end of those two years, there were some who predicted that Gordon, having been out of the game for so long, would never play at a decent competitive level again. But Neilson said he always remained convinced that as long as the goalkeeper’s knee problem could be sorted out, he had the right attitude needed to make a successful comeback.
“He’s been working, getting operations, physio and trying to get himself back. He’s managed to get himself back to a great level, and getting into the international set-up has been great for him. I knew if his knee was fine then he’s a top-class keeper. I think everyone else knew that as well. It was just that issue with his kneecap, his patella, and he had a few operations, but thankfully he’s got into a routine where he’s managing it.”
While Gordon has been attracting attention for the right reasons, the Celtic defence has been the subject of more critical comment during a start to the season in which they have been knocked out of the Champions League and failed to impress domestically. But, while Hearts are unbeaten in their division, Neilson still believes that his team will be second favourites at Parkhead this evening.
“It’s a good opportunity for the boys to go and play and hopefully perform,” he added. “It’s a big environment, a big stadium and a big club. We’re the underdogs, a Championship team with a lot of young players, so we can go out and try and enjoy it and do the right things.”
Celtic manager Ronny Deila is also expected to select his strongest side after resting some of his leading players, including Gordon, in Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Motherwell. But Neilson said that the strength in depth available to the Norwegian meant the home team would be formidable no matter the precise selection.
“It’s up to them who they want to play – it doesn’t bother us. We’ll play a strong team, but we know they’ve got a lot of international players and it will be difficult for us.
“It’s a Championship team playing against a Premiership team, so it’s always going to be difficult. You’re stepping up a level, but we need to go there and try and do things right and work to our gameplan, and if we can do that then we’ve got a chance. In the games we’ve played recently in the Championship we’re the favourites and trying to break teams down, but we need to flip that round and Celtic are the favourites.
“It’s about changing that mentality. We’ve been very expansive in our play recently and we need to change that a little bit to be a bit more rigid.”
Hearts played an attacking 4-4-2 formation in their 5-1 league win over Cowdenbeath on Saturday, with James Keatings partnering Osman Sow up front. Sow is likely to be the sole striker who starts tonight as Neilson goes for a tighter 4-5-1 line-up. Prince Buaben returns from a two-match ban and should partner Morgaro Gomis in central midfield, while Billy King and either Jamie Walker or Sam Nicholson, if fit, will provide width.