Sergio calls for stronger Hearts

FOR some time now, Paulo Sergio has been asked questions at press conferences about Hearts’ hopes of finishing third. For just as long, he has insisted that no-one can justifiably expect his team to do that well, and that a top-six finish has to be the priority.

With six games to go before the split, and Motherwell a dozen points clear in third place, the wisdom of the manager’s argument is clear. Hearts lie fourth, inside the upper half of the table by just four points, and if they lose at home to Dundee United today they will be guaranteed to drop at least one place.

United were uninspired when they played out a goalless draw against St Mirren last weekend, but otherwise their recent form has been excellent: four goals against Kilmarnock in midweek, five at St Johnstone a fortnight ago, and at the start of the month a victory at Ibrox in the Scottish Cup.

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Hearts have also made it through to the last eight of the cup, but their league form has been unimpressive, and a return of just one point from their last four games has left them closer to Inverness in tenth than they are to Motherwell in third. It was therefore no surprise this week when Sergio restated his position.

“Like I’ve said before, it’s a very hard season for us,” he said. “We lost a few players in January. Because of that I’m saying no-one can make a case for this team to be third or fourth.

“Of course my goal in the league right now is to keep the team in the top six. That’s my major goal at this moment, and of course the Scottish Cup. The top six is my priority and we know it’s going to be a fight to achieve that, as there are other teams that have improved their squad a lot in January, and they are getting closer as we’ve not had the results we’ve wanted in the last few games.”

With the exception of the morale-boosting cup replay win at McDiarmid Park, Hearts have not had a win since they hammered St Mirren 5-2 in January. That match was the last of a sequence in the league in which they won five games and drew the other, and Sergio thinks that, since then, his team have lost their ability to impose themselves on their opponents.

“I believe we have lost one of our characteristics to allow the others to play their game. We are soft when we don’t have the ball, and that has an influence on the next moment when you do recover the ball. So that is a thing we have to change right now.” Hearts have played two games a week since the start of the month, and Sergio thinks that schedule has played its part in weakening his team mentally. “I believe that fatigue is more psychological than physical,” he said.

“[With] lots of games, the way we work in training was changed because we didn’t have time. We recovered, and prepared the team for the next game, in one day. I believe we lost some of our characteristics because of that, so we are trying to put things in place again.”

This week’s signing of Craig Beattie should make a difference to a team which has lacked firepower up front, though the former Celtic striker’s lack of match fitness means he is likely to start on the bench today. At the back, Andy Webster’s suspension means Sergio will have to decide who should partner Marius Zaliukas in central defence.

Sergio has spoken publicly about his desire to stay with Hearts beyond the scope of his present, one-season contract. But he knows he is a lot less likely to have his wish granted if the team fail to finish in the top half of the table, and, although he has had preliminary talks with the board about his future, he appears genuinely unconcerned by that at the moment. “I’m worried with the Dundee United game and what I want my team to do – I’m not worried at all about my future,” he said. “When the moment arrives it’s going to be the board who says when we talk or not.”

Meanwhile, Dundee United manager Peter Houston has challenged stand-in left-back Barry Douglas to stake a claim for a place in his team. The former Queen’s Park player will replace the suspended Paul Dixon today and Houston admits Douglas has been unfortunate to miss out so often this year.

Dixon has been in the form of his life but will leave when his contract ends in the summer so Douglas will step back into the side next season. The 22-year-old played more games last year – his first in the SPL – but Houston insists that he has been happy with the left-sided player’s development.

He said: “Paul Dixon is suspended so we will have to make a change at left-back. Barry Douglas has been unlucky this season because he’s not done anything wrong. This is maybe an opportunity for him to make an impact again.”