They remain third in the league standings with nine matches remaining, four points clear of the Dons and five ahead of Hibs. As manager Robbie Neilson pointed out earlier this week, every team outside of the Old Firm would trade positions with the Jambos, regardless of the insipid performance they put up at Pittodrie. Hearts have lost their last three matches but two of those defeats came against Celtic. Some knives have been sharpened in the direction of Neilson and the players and it feels that despite the good work he and his staff have done at Tynecastle over the past three years, a crisis is never far away.
Such are the perils of managing a club like Hearts. The team has amassed the same number of points as last season at this stage (45). Competition this time around, however, is greater. Aberdeen and Hibs have got their acts together, making a fist of it. Yet Hearts still hold the whip hand. A trip to Easter Road looms in mid-April but before then, they face Kilmarnock on Saturday at Rugby Park before St Mirren visit Gorgie seven days later. Neilson’s men know they have the opportunity to regain some momentum and rebuild confidence.
"The Aberdeen game was a bit of a one off,” said midfielder Jorge Grant. “We had the two games against Celtic in that time. It may look like that, but it’s only actually the odd game where we didn’t perform. If you look at our form before that run, it was really good – and it got us into this position in third. I’d rather look at it from a positive perspective than a negative.”
Grant was asked if Hearts had slipped into a comfort zone, given at the end of January they were seven clear in third spot on the back of defeating nearest rivals Hibs, the Dons and St Mirren. “No,” he responded. “The gaffer [Robbie Neilson] is really good with that kind of thing – making sure we are right on it. This week again it’s been pushed into us on the training pitch and in the team meetings, it’s important we don’t let it slip.”
Kilmarnock will not be easy meat for Hearts on Saturday afternoon, despite fighting relegation. Almost all of their points have come on their synthetic pitch at Rugby Park, including a 2-2 draw against the Jambos in Ayrshire earlier this season. Derek McInnes’ men also ejected them out of the Viaplay Cup, a rare away victor at Tynecastle. Such are the expectations on Neilson’s side, dropping points would be seen as a failure, especially if Hibs and Aberdeen pick up wins against Motherwell and St Johnstone respectively.
“At this point of the season, this is where the pressure games come,” Grant added. “We have to pick up points. We are not too focused on what is below us at the moment, we just need to focus on ourselves and make sure we are doing the right things. We are not interested in looking backwards.”