Clean sheet a step in right direction for Jambos

The rapid start of the previous two seasons may have eluded Hearts this time round, but there is certainly plenty reason for encouragement after two gruelling campaign-opening matches against the only sides who finished above them last term.

Monday, 15th August 2016, 5:30 am
Updated Thursday, 25th August 2016, 6:52 pm
Tony Watt is slightly off balance as he blazes over the bar from eight yards out with three minutes left at Pittodrie

Being faced with a bottom-of-the-table showdown on match-day three – at home to Inverness Caledonian Thistle this weekend – is never a scenario likely to sit well among a group of supporters harbouring lofty expectations.

However, Robbie Neilson’s side can be content with a start which has brought a rousing performance in defeat to a Celtic side who look certain to win the league under Brendan Rodgers, and a hard-fought and well-deserved draw away to an Aberdeen side who demolished them 3-1 at Tynecastle in the opening meeting of last season.

Most teams in Scotland – Rangers included – would have done well to yield any points from such a daunting opening to the campaign, yet Hearts, who threatened to get the better of Celtic before Scott Sinclair’s late winner, might even have nicked a victory at Pittodrie after Tony Watt missed two good chances in the closing stages.

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The Betfred Cup exit at the hands of St Johnstone last Wednesday still rankles with supporters, but the Tynecastle side will ultimately be judged on whether or not they are in the top four come May. In that regard, their opening to the league campaign suggests they are in pretty good order and that any lingering negativity among the fanbase can soon be washed away by a surge up the league table in the coming weeks and months.

Certainly, the noisy travelling support who journeyed to Aberdeen appreciated what they saw as they greeted the full-time whistle in rousing fashion, loudly applauding the players off the pitch following a fourth game in a row unbeaten against a Dons side they hope to finish above this term.

“We’d have preferred three points because we had a couple of good chances, but it’s a good point,” said head coach Neilson. “Aberdeen had the better of the first half, we had the better of the second half. It was quite an even game between two teams that are evenly matched. There wasn’t a lot of football played because the two teams are so evenly matched. As soon as somebody gets the ball, there’s pressure on them.”

In a rivalry so often set against a backdrop of niggle, it was notable that the post-match analysis of Derek McInnes was along similar lines to Neilson’s, albeit the Dons manager cited fatigue as a major factor in his side being unable to maintain their impressive early start.

“We were clearly the better side in the first half and moved the ball about well, but we’ve got to make more of that good play,” said McInnes. “There was a clear lack of energy in the second half because our players were out on their feet.

“Graeme Shinnie and Ryan Jack were the real indication for me because they are as fit as anybody but in the last 20 minutes or so they were plodding through the game.

“That is a consequence of four games in nine days, so I felt for my players. Hearts had enough moments in the second half and they defended well enough to deserve a point in the end. “It was two teams who looked a wee bit tired towards the end and there was a lack of quality as a result.”

Ironically, it was one of those who looked most weary who almost made the difference in a game of few chances. Watt is short of match fitness and sharpness but, as in his previous two outings, his quality was evident as he looked Hearts’ most dangerous attacker.

Although he could probably have done with being substituted as he looked to have run out of legs by the hour mark, he still found himself threatening to win the match for his team in the closing stages.

After seeing an effort brilliantly blocked by Aberdeen defender Anthony O’Connor as he surged into the box in the 65th minute, Watt then blazed over from eight yards out with three minutes left as Hearts looked all set to win it. “Tony got into great areas and showed great feet, but he was a bit off balance with the chance at the end,” said Neilson.

For all of Watt’s liveliness in the absence of the suspended Jamie Walker, one of the primary reasons Hearts left Pittodrie with grounds for optimism was the improved display of a defence which had conceded seven goals in losing their previous three games, against Birkirkara, Celtic and Saints.

It was the game in Perth which posed the most questions about the backline, as Hearts lost two terrible goals while leading 2-1 with 17 minutes remaining. While captain Alim Ozturk was dropped to the bench for his part in the McDiarmid Park capitulation, John Souttar, who had also been culpable, retained his place.

The teenager vindicated Neilson’s decision by producing a man-of-the-match display which suggested, in the face of doubts among some, that he has the attributes to mix the gritty, dirty, dogged side of defending with an admirable desire to play from the back.

The former Dundee United player seemed perfectly positioned to head, block and tackle whenever danger presented itself in or around the Hearts penalty area.

“We were very poor defensively on Wednesday,” said Souttar. “I hold my hands up, I was poor. I wasn’t aggressive enough on Wednesday night, and the gaffer told me that. He’s put a lot of faith in me by playing me again. It’s a big thing. I felt I had to repay him, and I think I did that by helping keep a clean sheet. I thought me and Igor [Rossi] defended well.”

Souttar believes Hearts sent out a signal of intent by responding positively to a difficult start to the season.

“It was a tough shift, coming off the back of two tough games,” said Souttar. “After Wednesday, when we let the club down, it was a big test of character for us to come to Pittodrie. It wasn’t the nicest of games football-wise but that’s when you need to dig in and I thought we did that well.

“We showed we mean business. A lot of teams would have crumbled, coming up here after the results we’ve had, but we stood up to the challenge. Aberdeen knew that as well because they ended up playing a lot of long balls, which we handled well. Aberdeen had a lot of possession but I thought we had the better chances.”