robbie Neilson insists it is “unrealistic” to expect Hearts to overhaul faltering Celtic in the Premiership title race.
The third-place Tynecastle side have the chance to go within ten points of the leaders and champions-elect if they win their game in hand at home to Partick Thistle today.
With ten games to play, and two of those against Ronny Deila’s stuttering team, some Hearts supporters believe their side still have an outside chance of coming up on the blindside if they can go on a consistent winning run over the remaining two months of the season.
However, Neilson is currently in no mood – publicly, at least – to entertain title talk and believes overhauling Aberdeen, who sit four points behind Celtic, represents a more feasible target for his team. Although he feels Hearts could pip the Dons to second, he also believes Derek McInnes’ men are now genuine title contenders themselves.
“We’ve got a chance to get the gap to Aberdeen down to six points but it is still going to be tough,” said Neilson. “They are doing fantastically at the moment, had a great result on Wednesday night [at Dundee United] and are now bearing down on Celtic. We’ll try and stay as close as we can.
“We have a huge gap to Celtic and I think our focus has to be on Aberdeen. If we beat Partick, it would be 10 points with 10 games to go. Realistically, that is too big a gap. But I think Aberdeen definitely have a chance. A four-point gap can definitely be closed.”
Hearts’ hopes of a top-two finish appear to have been dented somewhat by the news that right-back Callum Paterson will be out of action for the next month as a result of the shoulder injury he sustained against Kilmarnock last weekend. The burgeoning 21-year-old right-back been expected to be called up by Scotland manager Gordon Strachan for the friendlies against Czech Republic and Denmark later this month, but Neilson confirmed that there is no chance of him being fit enough to be considered.
“Callum will have to rest for two weeks and then another two weeks building back up,” said Neilson. “We have earmarked the Celtic game [on 2 April] to hopefully have him back. It rules him out of contention for Scotland, which is disappointing as he would have been around the squad. These things happen in football.”
Meanwhile, Soufian El Hassnaoui’s injury nightmare continues, with the Dutch-born Moroccan attacker facing the prospect of sitting out the remainder of the season. The 26-year-old, who endured an injury-disrupted first campaign at Tynecastle, has suffered yet another setback in his bid to make his first competitive appearance of this term after it emerged that a groin problem is now threatening to keep him on the sidelines.
After sustaining a knee injury in the pre-season friendly defeat by Preston North End in July, El Hassnaoui was hopeful of returning to the first team in November when he started full training and playing in development league matches.
An untimely groin problem then delayed his return to action, but after recovering from that, he was deemed to be close to a return early in the new year. However, it has now emerged that the former De Graafschap player is having further problems with his groin. “Soufian has another issue with his groin and is away for a scan next week,” said Neilson. “It’s just one thing after another for him. It’s a shame.”
El Hassnaoui was one of Hearts’ first signings of Neilson’s time as head coach when he joined on a three-year deal in June 2014. However, the move hasn’t gone to plan so far, with the forward making only ten starts and 19 appearances in total for the club.
One player who has had no such difficulty in getting game time under his belt is Prince Buaben. Despite vying with the likes of Miguel Pallardo, Arnaud Djoum, Don Cowie and, prior to his loan move to Motherwell, Morgaro Gomis, the Ghanaian has started more Premiership games this season than any other outfield Hearts player bar Igor Rossi. The imminent arrival of American internationalist Perry Kitchen is set to further intensify competition in Buaben’s position, but the 27-year-old is unfazed.
“There has always been competition in midfield at Hearts,” he said. “We’ve got the likes of Arnaud, Miguel, Don, Morgaro, who will return next season, and now Perry. You have to work hard every day but it’s not just the midfielders - it’s everyone in the team.
“I’ve always said to myself that even when I’m not playing I need to keep working hard in training to show the manager you want to play. The manager decides in the end who will play but the fact he’s been picking me must show I’m doing something good. I’m happy with the games I’ve played this season but I won’t take my place for granted. I’ll keep working hard and try and play every game.”