Hearts v Celtic: Gap closing between Celtic and rest, says Neilson

Hearts aim to end 13-match run without a victory over the champions, writes Darren Johnstone

Hearts goalkeeper Neil Alexander looks ahead to his side's forthcoming Ladbrokes Premiership match against Celtic. Picture: SNS
Hearts goalkeeper Neil Alexander looks ahead to his side's forthcoming Ladbrokes Premiership match against Celtic. Picture: SNS

Ladbrokes Premiership, Tynecastle Stadium | Tomorrow, 2:00pm | Live on Sky Sports 1

Seven straight wins for Celtic against Hearts at Tynecastle. Twenty-six goals scored, two conceded; not exactly the damning evidence to corroborate the notion that the yawning divide between the Old Firm, or more recently Celtic, is being closed.

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But, ahead of tomorrow’s visit of the Hoops, that is exactly what Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson believes.

Celtic could find themselves knocked off their perch at the Ladbrokes Premiership summit by the time they travel east tomorrow afternoon, with Aberdeen, who are a point adrift having played one more match, in action at home to Inverness today.

A genuine title challenge by a team other than Celtic or Rangers is badly needed; the Dons’ title success in 1985 remains the last triumph by a non-Old Firm side.

“I think everyone is (getting closer to Celtic),” said Neilson, whose own team are looking to collect their first win over the Hoops in 13 matches.

“When you look at the results over the course of the last five or six years, people have started to get closer and closer to them.

“Their budget has started to come a wee bit closer, although it’s still huge. (But) Celtic aren’t signing guys for six, seven or eight million any more.

“They’re becoming more of a development team where they bring guys in for £2 million and 3m.

“The difference between a £10m pound player and a £2m player is big.

“That makes it slightly closer. It’s still a huge divide but not to the extent it was five years ago.”

So, does Neilson expect that trend to continue to the extent that the tedium of Scottish football will be broken?

“It depends what Celtic decide to do,” he added. “At the moment they look as if they are starting to become a development team, bringing young players in and trying to develop them while still trying to retain that consistency of winning leagues and getting into the Champions League.

“It’s dependent on the way they want to take the club forward. I think we’ll see a difference when Rangers eventually come back up.

“It might force them to spend a little bit more which would then make the divide bigger again.”

“People talk about them having a wobble but they’re still sitting top of the league,” added Neilson, who will be without the suspended Juanma tomorrow after the striker was ordered off for violent conduct in last weekend’s goalless draw at St Johnstone.

“They’ve still got a game in hand. I wouldn’t mind having a wobble like that through the season. If we were in the same position I would take it.”

Hearts goalkeeper Neil Alexander has his own ideas why Tynecastle has been such a happy hunting ground for Celtic of late.

“Apart from the Rangers game, you look at who the biggest clubs in Scotland are – and I’d like to think Hearts are right up there,” said the 37-year-old. “I think folk like coming to Tynecastle, with its great atmosphere and great noise.

“And obviously it’s just as big a game for them as it is for us. So they probably lift their game a wee bit, knowing it’s going to be a tough test.”

“But past records and goals against will be put out of our minds as soon we cross that white line. Hopefully we can put an end to that run on Sunday. We’ll just treat it like any other game.”

Hearts have not overcome Celtic since beating them 2-1 in a Scottish Cup semi-final in April 2012, a month before thrashing fierce city rivals Hibernian to lift the trophy.

You have to go all the way back to October 2011 for their last league win, Rudi Skacel and Ryan Stevenson the scorers in a 2-0 victory.

But last Saturday’s performance by Motherwell against Deila’s men has give Alexander hope. “What Motherwell did just gives other clubs confidence that you can beat Celtic, even at Parkhead,” said the former Rangers shot-stopper. They’re not unbeatable.

“So we’ll take confidence from that. If Motherwell can do it at Parkhead, we can do it at Tynecastle.”