Soufian El Hassnaoui believes Saturday’s top-of-the-Championship showdown between Hearts and Rangers will be a clash of contrasting styles.
The Jambos forward feels his side have prospered with a cultured, continental-style passing game, while he reckons Rangers, with more experience in their ranks, are reliant on a more direct approach.
“I think we have a different way of playing compared to Rangers,” said El Hassnaoui. “I think we have a lot of young players and Rangers have more experienced players. But even the football they are playing is a different style to us, I don’t think you can compare us to each other. I think they play more with crosses and we play more football. For me, it’s Dutch football. I think we play very good football.”
Hearts have won 11 of their 13 league games so far and remain unbeaten in the Championship. A victory at Tynecastle on Saturday would take them nine points clear of second-placed Rangers. With so much at stake, El Hassnaoui is aware that the game could become frantic and Hearts may find themselves unable to adopt their preferred approach.
“You can’t always play football, of course,” he said. “I think sometimes we play very good football. But last week [at Falkirk] we played very good football in the first half and in the second half we didn’t. There was a lot of physical influence in the second half. But that is not a big deal, because you have to fight also. That is also important. I don’t know what kind of game it will be on Saturday. We will see.”
El Hassnaoui feels Hearts would be in a commanding position if they were to enter December nine points clear, but he is adamant victory on Saturday will not necessarily mean his side are guaranteed the Championship.
“If you are nine points clear you can only throw it away,” he admitted. “It’s an important game in the competition, but if we win this game and then lose the next one, then the Rangers game is not so important. Even if we get a big gap after this game, it can still go back down, so every week we just need to keep focusing on the next game.”
Rangers players have questioned whether Hearts have the mental strength to maintain a title challenge, but El Hassnaoui insists he takes little notice of any attempts to unnerve he and his team-mates. “I have heard some of the stuff, but they can say whatever they want,” said the Dutch-born Moroccan. “Everyone can have their opinion, but all we can do is stay focused, think about ourselves and win our games.”
El Hassnaoui has made an underwhelming start to his Hearts career after groin surgery in the summer meant he was unable to take any part in pre-season. However, after scoring his second goal in six starts for the club in the 2-1 win at Falkirk last week, he senses he is gradually getting up to speed. “At the beginning it was difficult for me with the injury and everything,” he said. “When I came back I was playing, but I still wasn’t playing at my normal level. I wasn’t fit. It was difficult for me. But I had to play to be fit and I think every week is going better now. I think the last two weeks is going better than at first. When my condition gets better I can play my own game.”
As well as playing catch-up with regard to match fitness and getting used to playing in a new country, El Hassnaoui admits is also adapting to the high demands head coach Robbie Neilson places on his players during double and, occasionally, triple training sessions. “We are training a lot over here,” he said. “I am not used to it to be honest. But that’s a part of our training so I have to get used to it. We talk a lot and the most important thing is training hard because if you don’t do that then you won’t play well. We train like it’s a match day, we have arguments and tackles going in. That’s normal and you have to train like that because if you don’t then you won’t play like that at the weekend.”