MARIUS ZALIUKAS reckons he’s never seen happier faces in his six years at Hearts than when he walked back into the dressing room at Hampden after the Scottish Cup semi-final victory over Celtic.
But the defender knows that those same players must switch their focus straight back onto league business and tomorrow’s visit of Rangers for what could prove a pivotal weekend in deciding whether or not the Tynecastle side can claim a place in Europe for next season by virtue of their league position. Following the euphoria of the 2-1 victory over Celtic last Sunday, the other half of the Old Firm travel to the Capital tomorrow on SPL business.
With St Johnstone and Dundee United – the two sides who sit directly above the sixth-place Jambos in the league table – also doing battle tomorrow, Zaliukas knows that there is too much at stake for Hearts to even consider taking their eye off the ball.
Saints have a two-point cushion over Hearts, while United are even closer at hand with just one point separating the two sides.
While the general consensus is that the Tynecastle team are still in with a realistic shot at fourth spot in the league, the Lithuanian knows that something has to give in that match at McDiarmid Park and believes that there is still a chance for his side to aim for third spot in the league.
Boss Paulo Sergio has banned his players from talking about the upcoming Scottish Cup final against Hibs next month, the first of its kind in over 100 years, and Zaliukas agreed that if the Hearts squad are to make the most of their remaining league matches they must follow his instructions.
He said: “We were all excited after the result against Celtic but we know that we have got a huge task ahead of us in the league as well and that every one of the five games that we have left are really important for the club.
“The games that are left to play are against the other sides who are also going for Europe and once we have played, Motherwell, Dundee United and St Johnstone, we will know where we stand.
“We want to get a place in Europe for next season and that is what we will be concentrating on for the next few weeks.
“We have had a few good results lately and if we can get another win tomorrow then we can hopefully start to put pressure on Motherwell. First we have got to get the right result against Rangers and then we can try to build from there.”
With Sunday’s result under their belts, Hearts have now beaten both sides of the Old Firm this season and are looking to do the double over Ally McCoist’s men tomorrow.
Sergio’s men recorded a 2-1 victory over the Ibrox side last month, thanks to a goal from Ian Black and later strike from Jamie Hamill, and also earned a draw in Govan on the opening day of the season.
Zaliukas believes that the rest of the league no longer fear the Old Firm, although given the fact they are still considered the biggest scalps, he acknowledges that players need no extra motivation for clashes with the Glasgow teams. “I think that every single team who plays Rangers or Celtic now are probably more motivated,” said Zaliukas. “They are both big teams in Scotland and everyone wants to play well against them.”
Zaliukas is the joker in the Hearts pack when it comes to having a laugh away from the game, but he has serious ambitions of making his mark on the European scene again.
While in his homeland with FBK Kaunas he played regularly in the Champions League qualifiers and, most recently, was in action in the Europa League qualifiers for Hearts against both Paksi and Tottenham Hotspur.
He is keen to add more European experience to his CV and continued: “When I played in Lithuania I was playing in Champions League qualifiers every year, to be honest. Over here I have played a couple of times for Hearts in Europe, but obviously we all want to be playing more European football. We all want to be involved in the big games and Europe must be our big target.”
Rangers, in the grips of a financial crisis, have not had their troubles to seek, either on the field or away from it.
However, Zaliukas expects nothing less than a side who are fully focused and determined to see out the remainder of the season with some pride.
He said: “I don’t think that they will be thinking about anything other than football, they have had to put all of their off-field problems to the back of their mind already and they will want to do that again tomorrow.
“I think they will want to come here for their revenge.”
Zaliukas will be doing everything in his power to make sure that doesn’t happen and is instead looking for a repeat of the celebrations that greeted the referee’s whistle to signal the end of the momentous win over Neil Lennon’s men last weekend.
Craig Beattie’s penalty kick was enough to see off a late fightback by Celtic, and Zaliukas recalled: “I don’t think that I have seen happier faces in the dressing room in all of my six years at the club.
“I think that everyone feels like they have had a huge lift because of the result and we talked about the Celtic game on Monday and Tuesday all the time because everyone was really excited about the victory.
“Obviously everyone wanted to play in the game and to play as best as they could and I think that everyone did.
“We all gave 100 per cent and we did the job that we needed to. There were only five minutes to go when Celtic scored their equaliser but we kept going and trying to play football and I think we were rewarded for that.
“Craig’s celebration was one of the best that I think I have ever seen – the only thing was that none of us could follow him onto the track. Because a few of us had already had bookings in the competition we knew that we had to stop and let him do it.
“We told him that he was selfish and wanted all of the celebrations to himself! But the whole team can take credit for the performance because we made sure that we played right until the final whistle and got the right result.”