Steven MacLean helped Hearts skip to a comfortable victory at Dens Park on Tuesday. Now he hopes RB Leipzig are everything Dundee were not and prove inhospitable hosts by “pumping” Celtic tomorrow night.
This isn’t spite on the part of the Hearts striker. Celtic’s fate is very relevant to his and his team-mates’ interests since the sides meet on Sunday in an eagerly awaited Betfred Cup semi-final at BT Murrayfield.
Hearts strolled through their own midweek appointment to boost their confident levels before this weekend. Now he wants Celtic to endure the opposite in their Europa League encounter in eastern Germany in order to enhance Hearts’ chances of reaching the Betfred Cup final. The Tynecastle club are aiming to lift the trophy for the first time since 1962.
“We’ve got a bit about us, boys who can score goals, so we’re looking forward to it,” said MacLean. “Hopefully they [Celtic] get pumped [tonight] and lose a bit of confidence and we’ll see what happens on Sunday…
“We’ve beaten Celtic already this season so there’s no reason why we can’t do it again. Obviously they’ve picked up since then and scored ten goals in their last two games. But we’ve got belief.”
The former Rangers striker did stress he was only looking at it from Hearts’ point of view. “It [Celtic being heavily beaten] can help, especially if it goes deep on Sunday,” he added. “Of course you want all Scottish teams in Europe to do well but I hope they have a hard game [this time] as that can help us.”
MacLean believes Hearts are good enough to make the most of any such slender advantage. If Brendan Rodgers’ side are taken to physical extremes this evening then a confident Hearts side can aim to capitalise on any weariness on Sunday, particularly if extra-time is required to separate the sides. “If we’ve got something we can hold on to and they’re pushing and we know we can go the distance then we know we can make it hard for teams,” said MacLean.
“We can go toe-to-toe and fight with teams, but we can play a bit as well. Goals are coming from all over the team with different people chipping in.”
Hearts had some initial misgivings about the rescheduling of Tuesday’s game against Dundee for the midweek before such a crucial clash v Celtic. But having “won” the battle to move the semi-final to Murrayfield and also bring forward the kick-off time they were advised not to create a fuss.
It worked out well in the end; three goals, a clean sheet and, perhaps as importantly, no fresh injury concerns as Hearts increased their lead to six points at the top of the Premiership. As Craig Levein said afterwards, he could have no complaints.
Only Harry Cochrane, making his first league start of the season, complained of tight hamstrings afterwards. MacLean argues, though painful at the time, that Levein’s methods in pre-season have been hugely beneficial. The manager pushed his players to the max in a regime that included punishing drills up and down the dunes at Gullane beach.
This, coupled with their strength in depth, has helped Hearts recover from a defeat at Rangers that some pundits were interpreting as a sign they were on the slide. Not so, says MacLean.
“I listen to the radio going to games with the family and I heard Stuart Cosgrove and Tam Cowan [on Radio Scotland’s Off the Ball] saying that our bubble was burst after Ibrox. But on Saturday against Aberdeen we showed we’ve got a squad that can keep the run going. The gaffer has signed good players.
“The boys have taken to what the gaffer wants and he has to take a lot of credit on the recruitment side,” added MacLean. “We’ve all bought in to what he wants. It was well documented in pre-season that he had us all in it together. It was tough, up those dunes and on those pitches, but we all stuck together and got through it. Every week he just keeps telling us to do what we’re good at.”
MacLean was one of the signings some doubted at the time – he joined on a pre-contract from St Johnstone in April. Did a 36-year-old with suspect knees really have something else to give after a long career that looked set to wind down at the Perth club, where he seemed such a good fit?
It seems he does. MacLean was excellent on Tuesday. As well as scoring the game-clinching third goal shortly after half-time, he hit the bar and saw another effort superbly blocked by Jack Hamilton, the returning Dundee goalkeeper. Expected to be a bit-part player, the striker has already made 14 appearances and scored five goals.
“It’s great, eh?” he said. “This is what any footballer wants. At the start of the season you would have taken being six points clear after ten games, and being in a semi-final. So far, so good. But it’s only a start.”