Robbie Neilson believes the competitive nature of yesterday’s friendly against Premiership rivals Aberdeen will stand Hearts in good stead for their Europa League opener against FC Infonet next Thursday.
The two clubs have been in St Andrews for pre-season training this week and staged a closed-doors match yesterday as they sought to increase match fitness following their respective victories over Welsh side The New Saints earlier in the week.
Aberdeen came out on top courtesy of a first-half goal from Shay Logan, with Hearts blowing the chance of a draw when Arnaud Djoum smacked a second-half penalty against the crossbar. Hearts, as they had done against TNS the previous night, played with two entirely different teams in each half. However, the less-experienced side that started the match still contained the likes of Juwon Oshaniwa, John Souttar, Morgaro Gomis, Don Cowie, Billy King and new striker Robbie Muirhead. They gave a good account of themselves and were unfortunate to find themselves behind at the break against a Dons side at full-strength with the exception of Niall McGinn, who is still at Euro 2016 with Northern Ireland. Hearts introduced their big-hitters for the second half and looked the likelier side to net. By the end, even though it was a friendly, Dons manager Derek McInnes was clearly desperate for the full-time whistle to sound so his team, who are also in Europa League action next week, could savour a morale-boosting win over a team they enjoyed a fierce rivalry with last season.
“It was a good, competitive game,” said Hearts head coach Neilson. “Sometimes when you play foreign teams in a friendly it can be a bit low key, but we were playing against Aberdeen so the players were right at it. The two games have been good for us. Most of the boys got 45 minutes against TNS on Wednesday and then another 45 against Aberdeen. It was important for the players to get some game time and now it’s all about building over the next week. We’ll definitely be ready for next Thursday – we need to be.”
Goalkeeper Jack Hamilton, who played the full 90 minutes against the Welsh, sat yesterday’s game out as trialist pair Danny Amos, a 29-year-old Israeli, and Viktor Noring, a 25-year-old Swede, played a half each. Neither were worked hard enough to get a true reflection of their ability. Aside from the goalkeepers, the side that played the second half against the Dons and the first half against TNS had the look of a potential starting XI for the Infonet home leg next Thursday. Neilson insists nothing should be read into the way his team lined up in either game, however.
“The fact I kept the more experienced team the same for the two games doesn’t mean anything with regard to next Thursday,” he said. “I just didn’t want to mix things up too much because I wanted to get some relationships between the players in certain areas.”
Of the new recruits, two were included in the more experienced side – Conor Sammon and Faycal Rherras. The Moroccan left-back made an instant impact with an eye-catching, goalscoring debut against TNS and followed it up with an assured second-half display against the Dons yesterday.
“Rherras is a good player – he’s just got to understand what the Scottish game is about,” said Neilson. “It’s important with the new guys for them to get to know how we play and us to get to know them. They’re starting to understand what we want.”
The most notable aspect from both games in St Andrews this week is that Hearts have played with two out-and-out wingers either side of two powerful central strikers in a traditional 4-4-2 formation. In the more experienced team, this involved Jamie Walker and Sam Nicholson flanking Juanma and Sammon, and in the younger team, Dario Zanatta and Billy King played wide of Niko Todorov and Muirhead. With no diminutive striker in the ranks at present, it suggests Hearts, who often played with only one outright winger last season, aim to merge creativity and pace on the flanks with power in the penalty area.
After finding the net three teams against TNS, Hearts were shut out by the Dons yesterday in a tightly-contested, and occasionally sparky, match. Hearts looked the more threatening side in the first 25 minutes, with King and Muirhead both going close with shots from distance. However, Aberdeen, who kept most of their big-hitters on for 70 minutes, went on to enjoy a period of pressure before taking the lead just after the half-hour when Logan met a Kenny McLean corner at the near post and headed past Amos.
McLean then curled a free-kick just wide before Hearts changed their entire team at the break. They looked set to equalise in the 53rd minute when Ash Taylor was judged to have blocked a Juanma shot with his hand – McInnes protested angrily at the award – but Djoum smacked the spot-kick against the underside of the crossbar.
Two minutes later, Alim Ozturk volleyed high over from close range after Callum Paterson had headed Rherras’ corner down into his path. Noring made his only notable save of the match to keep out a Jayden Stockley effort before Sammon headed a Juanma cross over the bar. Walker and Ozturk both also went close to equalising for Hearts with shots from outside the box.
Hearts first half: Amos (trialist), Godinho, McGhee, Souttar, Oshaniwa, King, Cowie (Beith), Gomis (captain), Zanatta, Muirhead, Todorov.
Hearts second half: Noring (trialist), Paterson, Ozturk (captain), Rossi, Rherras, Nicholson, Buaben, Djoum, Walker, Juanma, Sammon.
Aberdeen starting XI: Lewis, Logan, Taylor, Considine, Shinnie, Hayes, Jack, McLean, Smith, Stockley, Rooney.