Why Hearts v Aberdeen is such a big match - and a must-not-lose for the Dons in quest to be Scotland's third force
Trophies, top-flight points, European success and attendances, home and away, are some of the point-scoring exercises amongst supporters of both teams. Despite such ambition, whether it be domestic cups or finishing third, the two teams don’t nearly duke it out at the business end of the season as much as they really should, considering their standing and financial outlay.
You have to go back to the 1986 Scottish Cup final for the last time they contested such an occasion – they have never faced each other in a League Cup final. In league business, since the turn of the century, the teams have finished in the top three 14 times between them. Yet, in only three campaigns – 2006/07, 2008/09 and 2015/16 – were they tussling to finish ahead of each other deep into the season.
This brings us to Wednesday night's Premiership fixture between the sides, under the lights at a sold-out Tynecastle Park. It is not yet February but this encounter already has the makings of being a decisive one in the race to earn what could be a lucrative third spot, potentially bringing European group stage football as it did when Hearts cantered to the best of the rest last season. It should be noted at this juncture, with six points separating Robbie Neilson’s men and Aberdeen, that Livingston and St Mirren are well placed to contend for the spot, while Hibs can probably, just about, be discounted despite the return of Kevin Nisbet due to their recent struggles.
For the Dons, Hearts are the team to catch. For Hearts, it is likely Aberdeen who provide most concern. With the situation as it is, the fixture becomes a must-not-lose for the men from the Granite City. For the hosts it can act as a statement victory, sending out a psychological blow to a rival who have spent much of the last 18 months looking up at the men from the capital having, for nine seasons, been the ones looking down at a club who suffered two seasons in the Championship during that time.
“We are still trying to push and push and try to catch Hearts and try to close the gap on them,” Goodwin said earlier this month. “If I am being honest I do think they are slightly ahead of us in that department at the moment. That’s not to say we are not going to keep trying and keep trying to force ourselves to get closer to them.”
On the road and Tynecastle support
A key reason for the difference is Aberdeen’s form on the road. While Hearts have been far from imperious on their travels they have won three times and picked up six more points than the Dons who have won just once outside of AB24 since August, saving some of their most egregious displays for trips to Rugby Park and Tannadice. Tynecastle Park will likely be a different proposition. The home side have unearthed a new ally in the Gorgie Ultras, a group formed this campaign designed to improve the atmosphere. Supporters have bought into their presence as well as the feel-good factor which surrounds the club, on and off the pitch, and it is having the desired effect both at home and away. Take Friday night’s 1-0 win over St Mirren for example. The match turned into a slog and such a narrow lead at home to the Buddies would have attracted plenty of groans and frustration. That was swapped for support and positivity to get the team over the line.
Hearts are in the midst of a seven-match unbeaten run despite still suffering from injuries to key players. It has allowed others to step up, whether it be Robert Snodgrass’ midfield leadership, Josh Ginnelly’s pace and directness in attack or Toby Sibbick's increased consistency in defence. They are in a better place than they were when they last met Aberdeen, off the back of a 5-1 thumping in Florence to Fiorentina. Aberdeen and others will regret not taking advantage of the Gorgie side’s European commitments and it's the Dons who come into this fixture, which no away side has won in the last 15 meetings, with an injury headache. Key attacking figures Duk and Leighton Clarkson suffered knocks in the League Cup semi-final with Rangers. The latter provides vision, creativity and a threat from long-range, but it is Duk whose presence would be felt most. A bustling, relentless and enterprising bundle of energy, the forward has the capacity to unnerve and occupy defences on his own and is the type of character who would thrive in a game such as this, albeit his power is diminished when played out wide rather than centrally.
The Dons will also be missing captain Anthony Stewart after his red card against Rangers, meaning Goodwin will have to reshuffle his defensive pack which may mean a return for Jayden Richardson at right-back with Ross McCrorie moving centrally with the preference to operate with a back four.
Like Hearts, Aberdeen have had their struggles defensively but will be improved by the presence of Graeme Shinnie, a likely contender to take on the armband in Stewart’s absence. He looks like he has never been away from the Dons midfield and is another who will thrive in the intensity of the battle of Tynecastle.
It is shaping up to be quite the contest. One Aberdeen know they really can’t lose, while Hearts know they can strengthen their grip on third place, dealing out a hammer blow to their rivals, while continuing the feel-good factor around Gorgie and their ascension back to being best of the rest.
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