HAVING watched his side take care of Rangers last week, Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson faces the ultimate test for any Scottish manager tomorrow.
He will try to mastermind a win over league champions Celtic and eliminate them from the Scottish Cup despite his club’s current status as a second-tier outfit. It is a daunting assignment but one which Neilson prefers to embrace rather than shy away from. Hearts showed commendable composure and patience to beat Rangers 2-0 last weekend, particularly in the face of some reckless tackles by the Glasgow side. Tomorrow’s fourth-round tie will be no less robust as a contest.
Hearts have earned plaudits this season for their passing football and Neilson will stick by that philosophy. He admits his team are not built for a physical, brutal game, so instead they must play to their own strengths.
“We knew it would be a hard contest against Rangers and the first 30 minutes was difficult as we failed to implement some things,” he said.
“I have watched a re-run of the match and I saw the challenges again. It is disappointing to lose Kevin McHattie [injured in a tackle by Kenny Miller] as he came in and did a terrific job and offered us a real attacking threat.
“I was pleased with the way we handled the atmosphere and did not get drawn into anything overly-physical. When we had the ball we still tried to pass it. If we had gone toe-to-toe with Rangers it might have been difficult for us.
“We are a young team and the players do not have the physicality yet of a lot of the Rangers players and we knew we had to approach it in a different way. A physical game is not something that suits us.
“We did not want to go into a game and say we were going to be physical because we don’t have a lot of physicality in us. We needed to make sure we play to our strengths…passing and moving, getting people running and getting away from physical contact.”
Celtic offer a sterner test than their Glasgow rivals, even allowing for the fact they were in Europa League action against Red Bull Salzburg on Thursday night. Neilson watched that match as part of his preparations for tomorrow.
“It’s another good test for us coming off the back of the Rangers match. It is going to be a really hard game for us,” he continued.
“It is a step up as Celtic are the top team in Scotland right now so we know what to expect. It is always a huge game when Celtic play Hearts no matter what league we are in. It is fantastic for the players and another experience and learning curve for them as they can pit their wits against the best club in Scotland.”
They have already done so once this season and suffered a 3-0 defeat in the League Cup at Celtic Park in September. “We will stick to our principles of passing and moving the ball but we may need to change and do some work on our defensive side of the game,” said Neilson.
“We have been working to combat Celtic’s movement in wide areas this week. It is a different environment as they are coming to Tynecastle and it will be another big crowd and it is the Scottish Cup. If we do the things we can do properly and pass and move the ball then we have a good chance.”
Celtic manager Ronny Deila has suffered criticism from supporters for his methods since taking over at Parkhead in the summer. Neilson believes there are similarities between what he is implementing at Riccarton and what Deila is doing in Glasgow.
“I hear a lot about what Ronnie Deila is doing on the training ground and his stuff appears to be interesting. It is similar to what we are trying to implement here in terms of different ideas on how to play the game and train. It depends on the mentality of the players no matter what club you are at. If the players want to embrace stuff, they will. You can only try and implement it and that can take time. It can take time for players to buy into a new manager’s methods.”