Hearts keep their focus ahead of crunch Rangers clash

Kevin McHatie, centre, is mobbed by his Hearts team-mates after opening the scoring. Below, Soufian El Hassnaoui nets what proved to be the winner
Kevin McHatie, centre, is mobbed by his Hearts team-mates after opening the scoring. Below, Soufian El Hassnaoui nets what proved to be the winner
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Live BBC Alba cameras and a separate kick-off time fooled no-one. This game was overshadowed despite all efforts to jazz it up. Looming over it was a fixture with a much greater profile – the one at Tynecastle this weekend.

Even in the Hearts dressing-room pre-match on Saturday, coaches and players were conscious of the forthcoming top-of-the-table match with Rangers. They knew Alloa secured a 1-1 draw at Ibrox earlier in the day and that a win over Falkirk would move them six points clear at the top of the league. With Rangers due in Gorgie, it was a huge carrot to have dangled in front of them.

“The gaffer just told us to go out and win the game. We needed a result after Rangers and Hibs dropped points,” explained Morgaro Gomis, the Hearts midfielder. “He mentioned that to us and told us it was a big opportunity with Rangers drawing. He told us to go out there and get a win. That’s what we did and we are happy.”

It sounds simple and straightforward. The first half was just that for Hearts, who retreated 2-0 ahead at the interval after goals by Kevin McHattie and Soufian El Hassnaoui. Falkirk regrouped following some half-time home truths and substitute Botti Biabi halved the deficit with 20 minutes left.

The visitors required plenty of resolve to see the game out. It would be fair to assume the thought of extending their lead over Rangers was a factor. “We didn’t feel any pressure. The gaffer just told us to go out and win,” continued Gomis.

“We don’t feel under any pressure at all. We are top and we want to stay there until the end of the season. We know it’s not going to be easy, we know we will have to work hard every single day. But we are ready for it.”

Are Hearts ready for Saturday? Given they remain undefeated in the league, yes. Given they dominated the first half against Falkirk, yes. The second half, though, highlighted a weakness. When Hearts are good, they are very good – arguably the best footballing side in the Championship. However, they can become unsettled when a team gets up in their faces. Rangers manager Ally McCoist will have noticed as much with Saturday’s encounter in mind. “It’s a big game,” continued Gomis. “They all are, but it’s Rangers so it will be one of the big games in the division. Hopefully we can go out and win. We are just enjoy going out to play and we are doing well just now.

“If we can win the game, it will be great. Is all the pressure on Rangers? I think so. But we don’t really look into it because it’s still early in the season. It’s a long season and we will see what happens. But we will go out and try to win the game.”

Some Rangers players have attempted to unsettle Hearts by questioning whether the Edinburgh club can handle the pressure of being table toppers. Saturday was evidence that they can.

“I think we showed against Falkirk that we can handle the pressure,” said Gomis. “I don’t know what the Rangers players have been saying. If they have been saying that, so be it. We are happy where we are and we are just going to enjoy it.

“Our confidence came from the first day of pre-season. The manager spoke and told us what was expected. Since then, we have enjoyed it. We are playing with smiles on our faces. There is a positive vibe around the club, with the fans and the players. It’s great.”

Fears are that Saturday’s match may descend into a tight, tense affair with brawn more important than brains. Gomis is confident Hearts will adapt. “We will see if the game is like that but, yeah, we can play any type of football. Hopefully it will be a nice game for the fans and people enjoy it, but if it becomes a battle we will be ready for it.

“All the boys are ready. You have to enjoy the title race. If you don’t, what’s the point of playing football? It’s great. We have a young squad and the boys are ready.”

Falkirk’s last two matches have been against Rangers and Hearts, so their goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald is better placed than most to assess the two teams. He lost four goals at Ibrox last week before the two he conceded to his former club on Saturday evening.

“Hearts play the better football overall, but Rangers have that experience,” said MacDonald. “It is going to be a close one between them. Rangers bullied us and they know how to win. Hearts are playing very well and they seem to have that winning mentality. It will be a close game.

“Hearts have a good cushion at the top of the league and they deserve it the way they have played since the start of the season. This is a game that Rangers need to win more than Hearts.

“There is nothing for Hearts to fear after the campaign they had last season. Nothing will be worse than last season and it won’t be a problem for the lads in that dressing-room. Hearts have not been defeated this season and they strike me as being tough opposition.

“Hearts have a good kind of mix with the silky soccer players, but they can also back it up with the likes of Prince Buaben and Morgaro Gomis and the back four can all look after themselves. This is a game that Hearts have every chance of winning.”