The sense of genuine belief in the Hearts squad that Celtic are there to be challenged is inescapable.
While some players chose to keep their ambitions in house, others, perhaps prematurely, voiced an intention to go for the title after a strong start to the current campaign.
In Thursday’s Evening News Arnaud Djoum rued the spillage of “stupid points” that he feels have effectively cost his team a chance to win the league this time round, but vowed that they would be ready to go for it next term.
The Tynecastle side are certain to finish at least third this season, with second-place Aberdeen still in their sights. Celtic, 13 points clear of Hearts ahead of today’s lunchtime showdown between the teams at Parkhead, are realistically out of reach for now.
Come the start of next season, however, Hearts will have strengthened their squad further, while their current batch of foreign players will be more accustomed to the demands of the Scottish Premiership and their crop of burgeoning young players will be a further year down the line in their ongoing development.
Captain Alim Ozturk wasn’t quite as bold with his words as team-mate Djoum but it is clear he believes there is a genuine opportunity for his side to be involved in next term’s title race.
“If you see the potential of our team, we had five guys away last week with the Scotland Under-21s,” said the defender, who is only 23 himself. “We have good talented players at this club. They are young but they have played a lot of games so they have experience. That makes us stronger and maybe with a couple of new guys it will be a different team again and an exciting season.
“It is up to the gaffer how many players we need to bring in [to challenge] but European football will encourage people to come here. If they hear we are in the Europa League it makes it easier to attract people. I know that’s the case for me and it will be the same for other players.”
Ozturk faced Celtic twice in cup competitions last season when Hearts were still a Championship side and the gulf showed as they were beaten 3-1 and 4-0. However, this season, both league matches between the sides have finished in draws, while the League Cup match, which Ronny Deila’s side won 2-1 in October, remained goalless until the last 20 minutes. The Dutch-born Turk is confident his side can maintain this trend of making life difficult for the champions-elect.
“We are a different team – everything is different this year,” he said. “The way we lost that Scottish Cup game last season, with the penalty for Celtic and the red card for us, was hard. If you get a red card against Celtic after ten minutes, good luck. It’s hard.
“But this year is different. We have new players and a new team. This will be my first game against them this season because I was injured for the period when we played them in all three games. We have drawn twice and lost in the cup but I think we did really well against them. We are looking forward to this game.”
Today’s game represents the first of four games for Hearts against the top two between now and the end of the season. They host Aberdeen on Friday before facing both sides once more after the split. Although his side are out of the title race, Ozturk explained that Hearts are motivated by the chance to signal their intent for next season.
“We are in a good position,” he said, with reference to the fact this is their first season back in the top flight. “It has been a brilliant performance from the team. To come from the Championship and challenge at the top is amazing and we are almost doing that. But if you want to play for something, these are the teams who are above us so it’s a really good test for us to show what we can do in these four matches.”
Hearts’ cause will be aided by having a captain in the form of his life. In the ten games he has played since returning in late December after being sidelined by a stomach problem which required surgery, Ozturk has helped keep seven clean sheets. His influence was missed as Hearts lost 3-0 to St Johnstone a fortnight ago but he will be back today.
“I’ve been really happy with my performances since I’ve come back from injury,” he said. “I was struggling with a lot of pain at the start of the season but now I feel good. I have no pain at all and I feel fit again. I feel 100 per cent and that’s great. I think it’s the best period in my Hearts career. The results have been good and we have been defending well. That’s important for me because it gives me confidence. It’s going really well.”