WITH their lead at the top of the SPFL Championship table having been reduced from nine points to four within the past fortnight, it would be understandable if Hearts were beginning to look over their shoulders at the ominous spectre of Rangers closing in on them.
Ally McCoist’s side are in a rich vein of form, having won each of their last seven matches and the Tynecastle players, who face Raith Rovers at Tynecastle this afternoon, know that, even if they manage to keep their noses in front, the Ibrox outfit will be pursuing them doggedly right to the end of the season.
Head coach Robbie Neilson’s men, however, themselves go into today’s fixture with morale on a high. Despite having a two-week break since their last outing, the glow of satisfaction is still burning within the squad following defender Alim Ozturk’s wonder, long-range goal during injury time in the Edinburgh derby at Easter Road, which snatched a 1-1 draw with Hibernian and preserved their unbeaten league record since the start of the season.
Hearts winger Jamie Walker, who made a positive impact on that match after coming on as a second-half substitute, is eager for a return to the starting line-up. While other players might have felt frustrated by having to wait two weeks for their next outing following that dramatic rescue – due to other Championship clubs playing in the Scottish Cup last weekend – Walker believes the chance of a break came at a good time for the Edinburgh side.
“We got a few days off so it worked out quite well for us,” he said. “And the late goal we got against Hibs at Easter Road obviously made it a lot better. I think it would have been a long few days if we had lost the game.
“But getting the point there meant we could enjoy the days off a wee bit more. It was a massive result for us and I think it gave everyone at the club a big boost. We didn’t want to go down there to our rivals and lose our unbeaten run.
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“It’s great to still be on that run but the season still has a long way to go.
“We just need to take each game as it comes. We have Rangers coming up in a few weeks and that’s another huge game, and it will be another chance for us to see how far we have come.
“They are going to keep picking up points so we know we need to do the same. They’re a good side and they’re definitely going to be there or thereabouts at the end of the season.
“So we just need to keep on winning, and if we do I think we’ll stay at the top of the table.”
With Hearts’ greater squad depth this season and their impressive start to the season, Walker has discovered it is not easy to get back into the starting line-up, having been left out for their last two matches, but he is hopeful of forcing his way back into a side which is brimming with confidence.
“I came off the bench at Easter Road and felt I did quite well,” he said. “So hopefully I am in the gaffer’s thoughts for the weekend.
“We’re unbeaten and the boys are playing with a lot of confidence at the moment. When you are winning games there is obviously going to be a different mood about the place.
“The coaching staff have helped with that, there has been a big change in the training schedule and everyone is working hard, so we’re delighted.
Meanwhile, Raith Rovers midfielder Kevin Moon admits he is relishing the challenge of trying to tame two players that he rates among the best in Scotland. The 27-year-old faces Hearts enforcers Morgaro Gomis and Prince Buaben today and knows he is in for a tough afternoon.
Moon came up against Gomis and Buaben as a St Johnstone player in games against Dundee United, and more recently faced the pair in Hearts’ 4-0 victory at Stark’s Park in August.
He said: “Gomis and Buaben are two players I really respect. I think they are really good players and should possibly be playing at a higher level.
“You want to play against the best players and the best teams, so it will be a great challenge. But we’ll try to stop them as well as we can.
“You can’t really pick anyone out of the Hearts line-up, though. I’ve watched them a few times this season and they’ve impressed. They’ve got great energy levels and a lot of good young boys there, so we have to look at that and try to impose ourselves on the game.”
Raith are fifth on goal difference behind Hibs and Moon insists they are determined to remain in contention for the play-offs.
He added: “You don’t want to lose touch with the teams above us. There’s still a wee gap between us and a few of the teams below us so we want to try and keep that and put a few results together to go on a wee run like we did at the start of the season.”
Rovers manager Grant Murray has welcomed back Christian Nade to training this week following an ankle knock but today’s clash is expected to come too soon for the former Hearts striker.
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