Celtic may be leading the league but Callum Paterson says the toughest match Hearts have faced since they returned to the top flight was against this afternoon’s opponents Aberdeen.
In the September encounter at Tynecastle, Derek McInnes’ men seized the early initiative and never let go, taking a 3-0 lead by half-time.
Hearts pulled one back but admit the match was a lesson in how high standards needed to be raised if last season’s Championship winners want to realistically challenge the Pittodrie side for superiority in Scotland’s top tier and realise the dream the players have of adding European football to their fixture schedule next term.
“I’ve played against loads of good teams this season, which shows you the rising standards of the SPFL, but Aberdeen have been the best team – the way they move the ball, they are a fast team, an attacking team and they score a lot of goals,” said the Hearts full-back.
“They have Adam Rooney up there scoring all the time, Niall McGinn and Jonny Hayes deliver balls into the box every two seconds.
“They have options too – David Goodwillie came in against us and they have a good, young squad with players such as Lawrence Shankland from the Scotland under-21s. They’re a good team and can mix and match it.
“In the last match they turned us over at Tynecastle and we want to rectify that.
“They were flying at the time and did well, beating us at our own game. We’ll have to change our game plan and see if we can beat them.”
Having started the season in blistering form, Aberdeen appeared to have emerged from the gloom of a subsequent dip in form and regained second place.
The benchmark for all others after they ran Celtic close for a large part of last season, Hearts manager Robbie Neilson told his side to learn from that first head to head and, as they jostle for position, he said today’s rematch will be a decent indication of how far they have advanced and how high they should be aiming for the remainder of the campaign.
“You are always learning in football and, when we came up, we wanted to play a passing game.
“But, against certain teams, you can’t do that so much,” said the Gorgie boss.
“Against Aberdeen here we made a few mistakes and were punished for them. We lost some bad goals on the counter-attack and, against a team of Aberdeen’s calibre, you can’t do that. I think we’ve learned not to be so open. At the beginning of the season we were as expansive as we were last year but we got picked off a couple of times. We’ve gradually managed to be more defensive-minded and haven’t lost as many goals as we did at the start of the season.” Unbeaten in the Premiership since they last faced Aberdeen, though, they have adjusted their early-season ambitions. Back then, it was simply to finish in the top six and, while that remains the primary purpose, there are secondary targets waiting in the wings.
“Ideally, the target is to beat Celtic and get to the top of the league,” said Paterson. “But we have teams like St Johnstone and Aberdeen that we need to get ahead of and create a gap between us.”
The manager will shy away from such public proclamations and Paterson admits that reaching the summit of the table may take time but he says that they are taking it step by step.
“It’s probably a bit early to say that [Celtic will definitely retain the title]. They are an unbelievable team and win loads and loads every season and it is going to be hard to pip them to the top. We have to look at top-six first and then we will have to try to build on that.
But a return to European football is much sought after and attainable, in his eyes, with a top-three finish guaranteeing them that adventure next term.
“I played against Liverpool [in 2012] when we went down to Anfield and it was just a great experience.
“We didn’t go in there thinking we were going to beat Liverpool but the way we played [drawing 1-1], we only got beaten 2-1 on aggregate and we were playing Gerrard and Suarez and Sterling and it was great to have the experience of that.
“Everybody wants to play in Europe and that is one of the biggest stages. You want to play for the national team, Champions League, World Cups and then the Europa League is up there as one of the biggest competitions in the world as well.
“We have cups to win and we will try and do well in them as well but we have to focus on doing well in the league if we want to play in Europe.”