New Hearts striker in race to be fit for kick-off at Rangers

Soufian El Hassnaoui
Soufian El Hassnaoui
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Recent recruit Soufian El Hassnaoui is a doubt for Hearts’ eagerly-awaited Championship opener away to Rangers next month.

The Morrocan-Dutch forward signed a three-year deal at Tynecastle last month and travelled south with his new team-mates yesterday as they headed to north-west England for an intensive four-day pre-season camp.

However, El Hassnaoui was the only one of the Jambos’ 24-player party who didn’t feature in last night’s 2-0 pre-season friendly defeat against Bulgarian champions Ludogorets Razgrad at Leigh Sports Village as he is still recovering from a groin operation.

While his fellow Hearts players are put through double training sessions in Chester today and tomorrow ahead of another friendly against Dinamo Bucharest on Sunday, the former De Graafschap and Sparta Rotterdam player will undertake light recovery work with the club’s physio Rob Marshall.

He is almost certain to be unavailable for the team’s first competitive game of the season, at home to Annan in the Petrofac Training Cup three weeks tomorrow – and is also struggling to be fit for the league curtain-raiser at Ibrox a fortnight later.

“When we signed Soufian, we knew he had a problem because he’d just had an operation,” head coach Robbie Neilson told the Evening News.

“He played a lot of last season at Sparta carrying an injury in his groin injury. He’ll be about four to six weeks before he’s ready to play. We’ll nurse him back. He’s just doing bits and pieces with the physio just now.”

Neilson has high hopes for El Hassnaoui, but he is in no mood to rush the 24-year-old into action.

“We want Soufian to come back and play as soon as he can but he’s a long-term player for us,” said the head coach. “We’ve signed him on a three-year deal, so six weeks isn’t really a big issue for us.

“We don’t want to rush him back until he’s 100 per cent fit because he’ll be a big asset for us when he is.”

The arrival of James Keatings from Hamilton Academcial, allied to the ongoing development of young forwards Dale Carrick, Gary Oliver and David Smith, who played in a central attacking role last night, means Neilson has alternative options to lead the attack in El Hassnaoui’s absence.

“James coming in gives us another option up front and David Smith played up front for a bit last night,” said the head coach.

“He was a striker right up until he got into the first team and has the pace to play up there. All the front boys are good, intelligent players who are flexible, so we’ve got plenty options.”