SOUFIAN El Hassnaoui has yet to make his debut for Hearts, having struggled to shake off an injury since joining in the summer.
But he has already seen enough of this season’s Championship to be convinced it will be a two-horse race between his new club and Rangers, and believes Hibernian lack the quality required to put in a sustained challenge for the title.
“I think we and Rangers have to do it,” the 24-year-old from the Netherlands said. “One of us – and we will be the one. I don’t think Hibs have enough quality to do it. In the first half against us they played well, but I think we have more quality than Hibs and so do Rangers. So I think it will be between us.
“I expected us to do well, because I saw in training we have a lot of good young players, and most of them can get better still. But we all work hard for each other, and I think this year will be a great year for us.”
El Hassnaoui is now fit again, and Hearts manager Robbie Neilson had hoped to give him his debut off the bench in Tuesday night’s League Cup win at Stenhousemuir. Injuries to other players thwarted Neilson’s plans then, and it remains to be seen if the new signing gets another chance in this afternoon’s league match at home to Falkirk.
As if being injured on joining a club were not annoying enough, El Hassnaoui has had to sit on the sidelines and watch Hearts’ other new strikers make a rapid impact this season. Osman Sow was an instant hit with the club’s fans, scoring a late winner at Ibrox in the first league game of the game. Then last week, with Sow suspended after being sent off in the Edinburgh derby, James Keatings came into his own with a hat-trick in a 4-0 win at Raith.
“I want to make up for lost time,” El Hassnaoui said. “I want to work hard and see what I can do for Hearts.
“Osman has scored, James has scored, so there is a lot of competition – but that’s good. If you don’t have competition that’s not good for the squad and you won’t be champions without it. I just have to do my best and I think I’ll be OK.
“I was on the bench on Tuesday and normally I would have played at some stage, but circumstances were not that good. That happens, so I’ll look to the next game.
“It has been frustrating, naturally. I came in with a groin problem. It was almost done but I then had more problems and I continued to struggle. But at the end hard work pays off and I’m there now.”
While he may think Hibs do not have what it takes to compete all the way to the end of the season, El Hassnaoui at least credits his club’s city rivals as being part of the reason he joined from Sparta Rotterdam on a three-year contract back in June.
“Rangers and Hibs being in the league was a big attraction for me, because you have three big clubs,” he said.
“That’s not normal, but it’s good for us.”
Injury may have frustrated El Hassnaoui, but it has not dented his confidence. When the conversation turned to his former Sparta team-mate Mario Bilate, now with Dundee United, he revealed he had played a part in persuading his fellow Dutchman to come to Scotland. And he also predicted that, when he gets the chance, he will light up games with goals of a similar quality to the one scored by Bilate on his United debut against Motherwell.
“Mario called me because he didn’t know anything about Scotland and I was already here.
“I was positive, I told him the people were nice, so he went to Dundee United. You can expect the same kind of goals from me, definitely.”
• BBC One Scotland will provide live television coverage of Celtic v Hearts in the third round of the Scottish League Cup.
The match at Celtic Park will kick off at 7:15pm on Wednesday, 24 September and it will also be available to UK users via the BBC Sport website.