What Hearts need to do to finish third - Aberdeen the obvious priority but Celtic and Rangers could hold key
“Because we were so far clear then we would be kicking ourselves,” he said recently. But, at that stage - before last weekend’s games - he said that there was little point in worrying about what might be when everyone was aware how things can turn on a couple of games.
They must have figured that last weekend represented the first of those opportunities, especially after they rediscovered their spark and re-ignited the ambitions with a 6-1 trouncing of Ross County on the Saturday.
Few expected Aberdeen, despite their own resurgence, to match that points haul the following day when Rangers travelled to Pittodrie. But interim manager Barry Robson made it eight wins from 10 and Hearts now have five games to overhaul a five point deficit and ensure European group stage football for successive seasons.
For that to happen, the Gorgie side will need an almost flawless run in, and the wheels to shoogle, if not entirely come off for their northern foes.
The hope for Hearts is that the two defeats Aberdeen have suffered since Jim Goodwin’s departure kickstarted their third-place push were against outfits in the higher echelons - Celtic and St Mirren, while the head-to-head on May 20th will be hosted by Hearts.
Recent history will foster optimism in the Tynecastle ranks. While the capital side have not triumphed at Pittodrie since 2016, their main rivals for third have not recorded victory on Hearts’ turf since 2017, even during spells when home struggles mean that fortunes favoured the away side.
While both teams face Hibs on their home patches, where recent records would suggest they both have an advantage over the side currently sitting in fifth, St Mirren dished out one of only four defeats suffered by Aberdeen at home in their topsy-turvy season but Hearts, who will have to travel to Paisley, have shared the spoils this term, winning one and losing one of the fixtures in Edinburgh, and drawing the last tussle at the SMiSA Stadium, where the final head-to-head will be contested.
But, the sprint for the finish line could, ultimately, all come down to their respective meetings with the big Glasgow two.
As third place slipped from Hearts’ grasp, leaving the outcome firmly in Aberdeen’s hands, manager Robbie Neilson paid the price.
While many were happy to see him go, others felt that a guy who had delivered two Championship titles, third place finishes in the top flight, European football and cup finals during his time at the helm had earned the chance to right the wrongs.
The fact the board did not grant him that luxury will, in part, no doubt have been influenced by how pivotal those games against Celtic and Rangers had suddenly become and his past results in those fixtures.
In his 18 games versus Celtic, he won one and in the 13 meetings with Rangers there were three wins. Robson has shown he knows how to win. Hearts will probably need to find a way against at least one of them if they are to avoid a summer of regret.
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