CELTIC’S last two visits to Tynecastle resulted in 4-0 victories. Jamie MacDonald kept goal on both occasions for Hearts and would be entitled to a touch of trepidation ahead of tomorrow’s lunchtime visit from the champions.
He is feeling no pressure, however. Hearts’ young and inexperienced squad is not expected to compete with a team preparing to face AC Milan in the Champions League in a few days’ time. MacDonald believes that is a good thing.
“There isn’t as much pressure on the young boys as there has been in past games against Celtic,” he told the Evening News. “Over the last three or four years, we had a more experienced team so the expectations were a bit higher. We still need to get points on the board but, in terms of expectations from the fans, that maybe isn’t as high as in the past. That might make it an easier game to go into for the boys.
“For me personally, it’s just like any other game now. You know that potentially you might have more to do because Celtic have some excellent players who can be very clinical in front of goal. I’ll need to be on my toes and, hopefully, I can keep a clean sheet.
“I remember losing 4-0 to Celtic last season and it was one of the strangest games I’ve played in. We actually played really well that night and they just took all their chances. It was one of those nights when they were very clinical. That’s the difference with Celtic compared to a lot of teams, they take their chances when they get them.”
A defence with an average age of 20-and-a-half will protect MacDonald tomorrow as Jamie Hamill prepares to anchor the central midfield area. Despite Celtic’s recent potency in this particular fixture, MacDonald is confident in the bank of four which will line up in front of him.
“With the way we’ve started the season, I’ve no worries at all,” he stressed. “Defensively, we’ve been pretty solid so far. The first three goals we conceded were two penalties and a dubious offside goal at St Johnstone, then came the defeat at Inverness. I think we’ve defended really well overall so I’m confident enough in the boys.
“It’s always difficult against Celtic no matter what team you have out. They are the champions, they play in the Champions League, they got to the last 16 last year, so it’s obviously going to be hard. But for the boys it’s a game to relish and look forward to – a game that will be a real test of their ability.”
MacDonald has sought to emphasis that fact as one of few genuinely senior players in the Riccarton dressing room.
“I think a lot of the younger guys know what to expect from attending big games like this as youth players. You try and make them aware that these are the games you want to play in. Tynecastle is going to be packed, as it has been this season because our fans have been great. Celtic will sell out their end as they always do and they will make a lot of noise as they always do. It’s always a terrific atmosphere.
“I think Celtic look at Hearts as a game the fans all enjoy. They always seem to lift their game against us and their fans always turn out in numbers. It’s a game for our young boys to go and enjoy, first and foremost. If we do as we’ve been doing in our other home games we might have a chance, especially with the crowd behind us.”
Solidity, particularly in defensive areas, is vital against opponents with forwards as lethal as Celtic’s. Gary Hooper may have departed but Kris Commons, Anthony Stokes and Georgios Samaras are filling his void between them and pose plenty danger to Hearts.
“The key thing is to keep the game as tight as possible for the first 30 minutes,” said MacDonald. “If you manage that, then generally the game will finish closer. If you lose an early goal against Celtic you tend to lose a few more because you start chasing the game. They are a fantastic team and they can take advantage of any openings. At the end of the day, they are the best team in the country.”
With that status comes international duty for many players over the last fortnight, followed by the trip to Milan. MacDonald is hoping the busy schedule has an adverse effect on Celtic’s players. “They have a massive game in midweek, although to be fair I think all their Champions League games are massive. Hopefully they’ve got one eye on that.”
SQUAD NEWS: CAPTAIN Danny Wilson and left-back Kevin McHattie return from suspension, while Jamie Hamill’s red card against Inverness has been rescinded. That leaves the Hearts manager Gary Locke with a full squad to choose from other than injured midfielder Ryan Stevenson. Hamill is likely to be deployed in midfield tomorrow to add a combative edge to the engine room. Wilson and McHattie will return to the defence. Celtic defender Mikael Lustig is a doubt with a back injury.