Robbie Neilson remains convinced Hearts fans will see the Dutchman Soufian El Hassnaoui reach top form this season.
The forward is finally free of injury and his head coach predicts he will make an impact during the title run-in after a disrupted first season in Edinburgh. El Hassnaoui signed a three-year contract with Hearts last June whilst still recovering from groin surgery. He required a second operation to cure the problem but got himself fit and made his debut in September, only to suffer an ankle injury against Rangers in November.
He returned to first-team action for the first time in three months last weekend, as a substitute in Hearts’ 10-0 mauling of Cowdenbeath.
The 25-year-old has intimated that it may be next season before he can attain optimum performance, although Neilson told the Evening News today that El Hassnaoui can play a key role in the final ten games of the campaign.
The Edinburgh club aim to complete a league triumph and ensure automatic promotion back to the Scottish Premiership and the Dutchman can expect to be quite heavily involved.
“He’s got time now through to the end of the season to try and get himself back to where he should be,” explained Neilson. “I think you’ll see him do that this season. We’ve still got ten weeks of the campaign left so I do think people will see the best of him towards the end of it. Then, hopefully, we’ll get a good pre-season with him and you will see that he is a good player.
“Soufian’s been out for a long time and he’s been battling for fitness. It was pleasing to see him come on at the weekend, work really hard and set Osman Sow up for one of his goals.
“I expect him to keep contributing to the team. He’s still trying to get full fitness. He’s been playing for the Under-20s in midweek and doing really well. He got half an hour on Saturday against Cowdenbeath and hopefully he’ll build on it. We’re having a hard week of training this week and then the boys will get a couple of days off over the weekend. We get back into it again next week to get ready for the Dumbarton game.”
The persistent injury trouble has prevented El Hassnaoui showcasing his talent in front of the Hearts support. Sow is already a Tynecastle idol despite his own injury absence, and others like Genero Zeefuik and James Keatings have scored vital goals to keep their club a notable distance ahead at the top of the league.
Neilson explained that El Hassnaoui’s ability is not in question. Once he is fully fit, the head coach expects him to be an influential player in the final third of the pitch.
“Souf has got great talent. We see it from him every day in training,” continued Neilson. “He just needs to get to that fitness level where he can do it in a match for 90 minutes. I think he will eventually. I hope he can get there during the run-in to the end of the season. He’s got two weeks to build on what he got on Saturday.
“He definitely has qualities that are going to add something to our team this season. Then, if he gets a good pre-season over the summer, we can help him kick on from there.
“It’s just been one thing after another for him. He got injured last season before he came here so he had an operation. He came back and did a bit of pre-season with us but felt it again and had to get another op. That was him out until September.
“He came back and worked hard to get himself fit. He played from the start in the Rangers game in November and did his ankle. That was him out until just recently. He’s only now getting himself back again.
“He’s had about four weeks to get fit, so it’s been a really difficult season for him. It’s been similar to Dale Carrick in a way. With niggles and one thing after another, it’s been really difficult for Soufian to get himself going.”
Hearts allowed El Hassnaoui to return to his native Netherlands and spend time with family late last year when it became clear that the ankle injury would keep him out for several weeks. The same privilege was afforded to Sow whilst he recuperated from a torn thigh muscle.
Neilson revealed that El Hassnaoui’s morale has lifted considerably since his return.
“I speak to him regularly and he’s disappointed at how the season has gone for him. He was down for a while because of the injury and we sent him back to Holland to try and recuperate.
“His head’s in a good place at the moment and he’s working hard. He’s a good part of the group and a good character. I can see that he will add to the squad between now and the summer.”
Versatility remains one of El Hassnaoui’s biggest strengths, although Neilson intends to use him in behind a main central striker for Hearts.
“I would say his best position is as a No 10 – a striker but dropping off a little bit. He’s more of a provider than a finisher I’d say. He might be asked to play different positions at different times but that’s the case for a lot of the players in our squad.”