Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson is confident his players will be ready for a “make-or-break” clash with Aberdeen after overcoming a widespread sickness bug.
The Scottish Professional Football League postponed Hearts’ midweek clash at Inverness after only eight first-team players started out on the journey to the Highlands following an outbreak of viral gastroenteritis.
Hearts have had little respite ahead of hosting Ladbrokes Premiership title challengers Aberdeen on Friday night but all affected players reported fit for training on Thursday morning.
Neilson said: “Everyone is fine. We shut down the training ground for two days and that allowed everyone to get over the virus and get some rest before the game.”
Neilson added: “It has changed the way we usually prepare. We usually build up for four days before a game. Unfortunately this week we only have one day but it just means (Thursday) is an important day for us. We have to make the players understand what we want to do and cram everything into one session.
“It’s a huge game and sometimes you can have too much build-up to a game. Sometimes it’s good not to focus on it and just come in and be ready to go.”
Aberdeen can close the gap on Celtic to two points ahead of the champions’ trip to Motherwell on Saturday but Hearts still have designs on second spot, sitting 12 points adrift with a game in hand.
And Neilson said: “I think it’s make or break for first place and second place. I honestly think it’s a game that both teams need to win. The loser of the game will either be out of first place or out of second place.
“A draw for both teams isn’t good enough. We are trying to catch Aberdeen and Aberdeen are trying to catch Celtic, so two teams will go gung-ho to try and get a result.
“We will be ready for it. We are in good form against them and know what to expect.”
Midfielder Sam Nicholson is confident he will be ready despite suffering badly from the sickness bug.
Nicholson said: “It was Sunday night and I had it for a few days. It was only Wednesday I started feeling a bit better, but I woke up and feel much better.
“I will see what I’m like in training but I’m confident I will be fine. Everyone seems fine. It’s obviously not ideal preparation but the boys have the right mindset and good professionalism, we will go into the game and not worry about the preparation.”
Nicholson fears he and Scotland Under-21 team-mates John Souttar and Jack Hamilton were the source of the bug after coming back from international duty.
Kilmarnock midfielder Craig Slater and Billy King, who is on loan at Rangers from Hearts, both missed Scotland Under-21s’ victory over Northern Ireland last week because of illness.
“I think the boys in the 21s are getting the blame,” Nicholson said. “I was one of the ones getting the blame.
“I had to apologise to the boys and say I never meant it but obviously they weren’t too happy with me!”
Hearts have progressed against Aberdeen since suffering a 3-1 home defeat in September. Only a late penalty cost them a point at Pittodrie and they knocked the Dons out of the William Hill Scottish Cup in January.
Neilson said: “The two teams are quite evenly-matched. Aberdeen are ahead of us in the league, I think they have more experience than us at this level, they have players who have played 200 to 300 games in this league.
“We don’t have that and we don’t seem to be able to grind out results as well as they do, but player for player we are pretty evenly-matched and I think Friday night we will show that again.”
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