McCall expects battle to stay third in SPL

MOTHERWELL manager Stuart McCall believes that Hearts can still put in a challenge for third place in the SPL if they hold on to enough players from their current squad.

McCall’s team remain five points clear of St Johnstone and six ahead of Hearts with a game in hand on both, but after losing 2-0 at Tynecastle on Saturday they expect to have a fight on their hands to stay there.

“It’s never been a given, especially with the teams that are there,” McCall said of the battle to finish best of the rest behind Rangers and Celtic.” If Hearts can keep that side together – and you never know what they’re going to do . . . .

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“I’m probably surprised they’re not higher than they are, even prior to their troubles. They’ve got the third strongest squad in the league, there’s no doubt about that.

“It’s about consistency. We’ve been fortunate enough to have that consistency, but on any given day teams can beat teams.”

McCall thinks that if Motherwell do hold on to their present position, it will top their achievement last season, when they reached the Scottish Cup final, losing at Hampden to Celtic. “I got asked the question the other day: would finishing third be better than the cup final? And the answer is yes, it would be. But there’s no talk of third. If we can get into Europe, fantastic.”

Midfielder Keith Lasley agreed that the fight for third could go the distance. “I didn’t expect anything less, to be honest,” he said. “There are some good teams – St Johnstone had a good result against Dunfermline – and there are going to be a number of teams between now and the end of the season vying for that third position.

“We’re one of those teams and we can try and stay up there as long as we can. That’s a bit of a blip, but hopefully we can get back on track on Wednesday night [at home to Dunfermline] and take it from there.”

Motherwell had won their last five away matches in the league, but never looked like making it six in a row at Tynecastle after going behind to an Ian Black goal. “We started the game pretty brightly, then the first goal went in and the game seemed to drift away from us,” Lasley said. “We weren’t at the races and it was a poor display.

“I thought Hearts were excellent and deserved winners. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes, so it’s not easy, but they’ve still got a good squad and really good depth. I think it can sometimes bind you together when things like that are happening off the park, and that certainly seemed to be the case here.”

After seeing his team perform so well over the past couple of months, McCall added that it would be unfair to over-react to one below-par showing. “There’s no disgrace,” he said. “It’s disappointing, but there’s no disgrace in coming to Hearts and getting beat by the side that they can put out on the park.

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“We defended poorly for the two goals, and we didn’t do enough creative-wise to really cause them a problem. We’ve no divine right to go anywhere, just because we’ve been playing well, and expect to win the game.

“You’ve got to give the Hearts’ players and management full credit for coming out and putting a performance like that in. Mehdi Taouil and David Templeton were excellent today, and we didn’t cope with them as well as we would have liked.

“They’ve got good players, so it’s not a disgrace. We probably had two or three lads who had as poor a game for Motherwell as they’ve had since I’ve been here.

“I can’t be over-critical, because they’ve been excellent up to now. It’s all about how we bounce back and react to a defeat. We just weren’t good enough, and the best team won.

“But it’s not doom and gloom. It’s not the end of the world because we’ve been beaten by a very good Hearts team.”