Why Pittodrie is so pivotal as Hearts look to withstand Aberdeen and Hibs in race for third

Hearts will eat up the miles as they travel to Pittodrie this weekend and once there they will be doing all they can to ensure they get the win they need to prevent their hosts from eating into the lead they have worked so hard to establish in third spot.

With just five Premiership games until the split and a further five after it, there is still everything to play for but this weekend could be pivotal. And, having got themselves into pole position, the burden of expectation now weighs heavily on the Gorgie side. The truth is, third place is now theirs to lose.

Regardless how difficult it is for teams, including the Old Firm with their greater financial clout, to juggle European football with the normal demands of the Scottish game, there will be disappointment at Hearts if they don’t maintain their position as best of the rest. Which is why Saturday’s match could be so important.

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Win and they will move ten points clear of Aberdeen and, provided Hibs do not manage to pull off a minor miracle and become the first team to claim anything from Ange Postecoglou’s Premiership leaders at Celtic Park this term, they will also open up an eight-point gap on their city rivals.

Aberdeen's Luis Lopes and Hearts' Toby Sibbick in action during the previous clash at Pittodrie in October. (Photo by Craig Foy / SNS Group)Aberdeen's Luis Lopes and Hearts' Toby Sibbick in action during the previous clash at Pittodrie in October. (Photo by Craig Foy / SNS Group)
Aberdeen's Luis Lopes and Hearts' Toby Sibbick in action during the previous clash at Pittodrie in October. (Photo by Craig Foy / SNS Group)

Lose to Aberdeen, though, and things could get interesting. Pressure will certainly mount, with the managerless Pittodrie side moving to within four points while capital foes Hibs will be no more than five points behind. If Lee Johnson’s side maintain their positive recent form against teams outwith the Old Firm and secure a place in the top six then there are two further head-to-heads and a possible six-point swing to factor in.

It is a tight league, where the tussle at the foot of the table could go to the wire and few would wager heavily when it comes to determining next month’s top/bottom divide, with just seven points separating fifth and eighth, and an even more meagre four points between seventh and fourth. It means there is unlikely to be many teams easing off and coasting towards the summer.

So, Hearts will be keen to earn any breathing space they can with a win in the Granite City.

The last trip there, in October, ended in a 2-0 defeat and that will cross their minds, despite the fact they took revenge with a 5-0 mauling at Tynecastle in the death throes of Jim Goodwin’s managerial stint.

The capital side had a demanding start to the season as they combined domestic duties with European football. Advancing to the Conference League group stage as a consequence of last year’s relatively straightforward third-place finish, the club knew that repeating the feat would not be so easy. But, having sampled the foreign delights, the ambition for this campaign was to secure a do over.

And, with manager Robbie Neilson and captain Craig Gordon both veterans of the last Hearts squad to bank back-to-back third-place finishes, in seasons 2002/03 and 2003/04, they have personnel who know what it takes.

Which is why, 19 years on, there will not be blind panic if things do concertina as the season moves towards a denouement.

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There should also be no underplaying the achievement if they do see things out. Since 2004, they have been striving for consistency at the top end of the league standings and while there have been a further four second or third-place finishes for Hearts, the best they have been able to serve up as a follow up was fourth best, in 2006/07.

On every other occasion they have had to settle for fifth and sixth spots, demonstrating just how difficult it is to replicate the form needed to consistently deliver week in, week out, while competing at home and abroad.

Being able to plump up the cushion between themselves and the teams chasing them would be huge.

Neilson opted not to risk rushing the likes of Lawrence Shankland, Robert Snodgrass and Stephen Humphrys back for last weekend’s Scottish Cup tie against Celtic, recognising the trio’s potential worth to the squad in the final run in.

Key players as Hearts moved up the league standings, into third place as the action resumed following the World Cup break, with Hibs and Aberdeen breathing down their neck, their contributions will be integral again and, given how few points are being dropped by Celtic and Rangers, the head-to-head meetings are going to be massive.

But, with both Hibs and Aberdeen having to squeeze in an extra Old Firm meeting before the split, Hearts have a chance to steal a march, provided they perform at their optimum.

After Aberdeen, they have two more away fixtures, against Kilmarnock and Hibs and they dropped points at all three venues earlier in the season. They also have two home games, against St Mirren and Ross County. Every single one of those teams are still battling for something, so none will be a gimme.

As well as Hearts, Aberdeen also have Killie and Rangers at Pittodrie and travel to play St Johnstone and Ross County, while Hibs have an extra away game, facing Celtic, Dundee United and St Johnstone on the road but host Motherwell and Hearts in Leith.

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None of them will be taking anything for granted. They know every point could count at this stage and the fitness and form of their key players could be the difference as they head into the post-split fixtures. None of those three remain in cup contention but with things so close there are plenty of games that will feel like cup ties looming large, starting this weekend.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​



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