Robbie Neilson has challenged Hearts to lay down a marker against Aberdeen in what he expects to be a high-intensity encounter at Pittodrie today.
The two sides enjoyed a fierce rivalry last season, with an element of needle evident, as the Dons finished ahead of the Jambos by six points in the battle for second place. Hearts, however, head north having won each of the last three meetings between the teams.
Following three consecutive defeats, at the hands of Birkirkara, Celtic and St Johstone, Neilson is hoping his side can kick-start their season by beating a team expected to be one of their closest rivals in the Premiership this season.
“It’s going to be a tough game,” said the head coach. “Aberdeen have recruited but not in a way that changes their style a lot. It’s going to be the same as last season and I expect the game to be much the same as the games with Aberdeen last season.
“I expect a high-intensity game with a lot of tackles and a lot of pressing. It is two teams who are trying to compete against each other in the league. It’s important both teams understand that. It is competitive but there is a respect as well.”
Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes insisted this week that his side finished emphatically ahead of Hearts last season. Neilson was of no mind to dispute this claim, but is intent on ensuring that the same can’t be said of the gulf between the teams in the current campaign. “They beat us [to second] so they were the better team last year,” said Neilson. “That’s it. The league never lies at the end. They were better than us. We hope we have progressed to a point where we can compete and be better than them. But we have to prove it.”
In that regard, Hearts’ cause is likely to be aided by Tony Watt, who has impressed in his first two appearances since joining on loan from Charlton Athletic. However, Neilson explained that the striker, who started on the bench against Saints on Wednesday, needs to be bedded in gently as he is still short of match fitness following an injury-disrupted summer.
“I thought he did really well on Wednesday, I was delighted with him,” said Neilson. “He will hopefully get more game time at Aberdeen. We are just nursing him back in at the moment. He still has a bit to go in terms of fitness because he was out for four months and didn’t do a lot of pre-season. Coming back from that groin problem, it is important that we don’t push him too hard. I think when he does get his full fitness he will be one of our key players.”
Midfielder Perry Kitchen is set to return to the squad after a month out injured as Hearts seek to end a three-game losing streak which has prompted an air of negativity among some supporters. Neilson is in no doubt that his team will soon start to turn their encouraging displays into positive results.
“In the last two seasons we had six points from two games in the league but the performances weren’t great,” said Neilson. “We’ve played two games now and the performances have been really good. In Perth we were in total control for 75 minutes but it’s the small details that let us down. It’s important we don’t forget the good performance, yes the results are disappointing but it’s about progressing here and the performances are key to that.”
Jamie Walker won’t play today as he starts a two-game ban for simulation in Sunday’s match against Celtic. Neilson was disappointed that the compliance officer’s referral was upheld on Thursday, but reluctantly accepted the decision. “Obviously we’re disappointed,” he said. “We thought we had a good case, but it was it was down to the opinion of the three guys on the panel. It’s not down to facts or anything anybody says, it’s what they think at that moment in time.”