HEARTS head coach Robbie Neilson has warned his players that they will face a battle to overcome a resurgent Hibernian side on Saturday – despite the 19-point gulf between the Edinburgh rivals in the Championship standings.
Hearts ensured they will start 2015 as the only unbeaten side in British senior league football with a hard-fought 1-0 over Livingston at the weekend, extending their lead at the summit of Scotland’s second tier to 15 points.
CONNECT WITH THE SCOTSMAN
• Subscribe to our daily newsletter (requires registration) and get the latest news, sport and business headlines delivered to your inbox every morning
They are a further four clear of Hibs ahead of the traditional and greatly anticipated New Year offering from the capital.
However, Hibs have clicked into gear under Alan Stubbs in recent weeks, racking up five wins in their last six outings and scoring 17 goals in the process – capped by a magnificent 4-0 demolition of Rangers last weekend.
Despite a handsome lead over their city rivals – allied with a run of just one defeat in their last seven derby outings – Neilson has no intention of letting over-confidence affect his players.
Neilson said: “The win against Livingston, along with Rangers dropping points, gives us a lift going into the Hibs game and we are on a decent run.
“But Hibs have hit a fantastic period of form. They are playing well and they will be confident coming to Tynecastle. It will be a very difficult game for us to win.
“We get ready, prepare properly and we go again for the derby. It will be a different game from Livingston, we will change our shape again, work on a couple of things in training and look forward to it. It’s a fantastic game to play in.
“Fifteen points is a great cushion to have but it can be eaten away. We now have another three huge games in Hibs, Dumbarton and Rangers.”
Asked whether Hibs now represent Hearts’ most credible title challengers, given the turmoil at Rangers, Neilson added: “Time will tell on that one.
“There are still 18 games to play. They are certainly in a good bit of form but we can only look after ourselves. Whether Rangers or Hibs are challengers, if we win our games, we will win the league.”
James Keatings, who is arguably the Championship’s form marksman at the moment, will lead the line for Hearts after missing out on the previous meeting between the sides in October through injury.
The former Celtic and Hamilton attacker has scored four opening goals in his last four matches, with his close-range winner against Livingston illustrating a laudable strength of character, coming just 12 minutes after he missed his second penalty kick of the campaign.
Keatings’ mental strength and dedication have made a positive impression on Neilson.
“He had the strength to step up and take the penalty for us, misses that, but still carries on to score the goal that wins us the game,” the 34-year-old continued.
“I’m delighted for him. He is a strong character and is working very hard. He is looking fit, staying injury-free and looking after himself, which is pleasing.
“He has been fantastic in the last few games for us and a big part of the team’s success this season.”
SCOTSMAN TABLET AND IPHONE APPS