No one will be in the least bit surprised if Birkirkara’s approach to tonight’s clash with Hearts at Tynecastle involves keeping things very tight.
That is certainly what head coach Robbie Neilson expects from the opposition, who seemed content with a 0-0 draw in Malta last week in the first leg of their Europa League second qualifying round tie.
It is therefore incumbent on Hearts to break the visitors down. Someone who is central to their hopes of doing so is Jamie Walker, who had a part to play in each goal when Hearts defeated FC Infonet 4-2 in the last round earlier this month.
Such a contribution so early in the season is especially commendable considering he is still niggled by injury.
Walker endured a frustrating time of it last season because of a recurring knee problem. Slightly worryingly for both him and Neilson, he is still not entirely free of pain.
Despite the operation to remove a small piece of bone from his left knee last December being declared a success, there were complications. But Walker is learning how to manage the problem. Every morning he spends time on his own doing squats.
“He had that (the small piece of bone) taken out and there was a problem with his tendon,” explained Neilson yesterday. “It’s just keeping on top of that. It’s one that might take another three to four months to really cure but at the moment he can get through it, he can train and he can play.”
Which is just as well for Hearts, whose trust in Walker bringing some spark to their play often borders on over-reliance. He scored five times in just 14 appearances after his comeback from injury in February – the goals actually came in the space of just six league games. This form seemed to offer abundant proof the player’s injury worries were behind him.
“Towards the end of the season, he started getting back into it again and was playing really well, then it recurred,” said Neilson. “This season for Jamie is about playing consistently, trying to get 25-30 games, trying to score goals and create more.
“There’s no doubt he is a talent. He is one of the most naturally gifted we’ve got here. We just need to get him playing regularly and keep his fitness up.
“Walker and (Arnaud) Djoum in that central area are the two players that create for us. When Walker is out, we have to rely more heavily on Djoum and vice versa. If we can keep the two of them fit then it gives us a lot of creativity.”
After missing so much of last season, Walker is understandably keen to make the most of this campaign.
He hasn’t got only club ambitions, but also international ones. Neilson admits the 23-year-old is not quite yet at the standard required to secure the major move the player himself might like to think awaits. Walker, who was linked with a move to Real Betis two seasons ago, is contracted to the Tynecastle club until 2018.
“He’s still got a long way to go,” said Neilson. “He’s still about a year and a half away from getting a move. If he gets himself fit and he keeps playing and he keeps progressing, there is a chance that he will progress further.”
But Walker knows the only way to keep improving is to keep playing regularly, which means overcoming his current discomfort. The last thing he needs is another extended break.
“I’m not complaining about the early start and I’d rather be back playing competitive games than pre-season friendlies,” he said. “I was out for three months and I have been working on it (the tendon pain) for three months. I still have to do work every day just in case to protect it.
“I am short of my maximum and I get sore after a game,” he admitted. “But every morning I am in rehab working on my squats. I will keep doing it through the season to keep the pain away.
“It’s my first time getting injured. But it’s part and parcel of the game and I just have to work hard and get fit.”
On the danger presented by Birkirkara, whose defensive strength compounded by the heat in Malta made it an arduous test for Hearts last week, Walker echoed Neilson’s comments about the need to be patient.
“They are going to sit in and knock the ball from side to side,” he said. “Hopefully the fans can stick with us as well and we can repay them.”