Alex Cochrane hypes up the introduction of VAR, the enjoyment of European football and Hearts getting back in the mix
Facing off against the likes of Kyogo Furuhashi, Giorgos Giakoumakis, Liel Abada and all myriad of Celtic’s attacking arsenal is already a challenge fraught with danger before adding an unfamiliar hazard into the mix.
Hearts are looking to end a run of five winless matches where they’ve shipped in an alarming 16 goals. A club once synonymous with physical football and hard-nosed defending is now looking more than just a soft touch, especially at the back where an undersized and undermanned back-line struggles to deal with even the simplest of crosses into the penalty area.
In order to end this streak on Saturday they’ll need, in all likelihood, to limit Celtic to just the one goal, or maybe even get themselves a clean sheet. Not only is there all that Parkhead firepower to deal with, they now have to consider the threat of VAR.
Saturday’s clash between the two sides will be the first televised match in Scottish football history to feature the video technology designed to help officials correct wrong decisions and catch moments off the ball which warrant a red card or penalty.
It’s another wrinkle in the back of player’s minds, though Hearts defender Alex Cochrane reckons it’s just something teams are going to have to get used to as he revealed there were no special instructions in training ahead of the match at Tynecastle.
"No particular instructions. We had a meeting with the referees at the start of the season and they said what the protocol would be,” he said. “There might be a little bit of a delay after goals are scored, or actual VAR situations. We are just going to have to get used to it. It's the first time I've used it but I think it will be a positive for the game.
"Yeah, some players might be quite smart with it, use it the other way, but at the end of the day, it's a physical sport and, in my opinion, you have to be touch-tight to your opponent in those situations. I think we might see more of them given in the future, but we'll have to wait and see.
"At the start there were a few sticky periods, it took the referees and football in general time to get used to it. But now I think it's helped the game. You see decisions that have gone in favour of teams and helped. I think the one thing that fans don't like is when there's a goal and then a potential offside, they're sort of sat in silence, but apart from that it's all good."
A major obstacle for Hearts so far this season has been their European experience on top of the bread and butter of domestic football. In a campaign where matches have already been crammed in ahead of the winter break for the World Cup, the Jam Tarts have had to play Thursday to Sunday just about every week, or so it feels.
It’s led to a downturn in results with an increase in quality opposition, like Istanbul Basaksehir and Fiorentina, while the workload has contributed to an injury crisis with 11 first-team players suffering injuries following last weekend’s loss at Aberdeen.
Despite all this, Cochrane insists it’s been a pleasurable experience for the players as they seek to better themselves and the club as a whole. After all, progress isn’t always linear.
“It’s definitely been good with the free midweek,” he said. “Last week was a hectic week for us obviously, what with the flights and then going up to Aberdeen. But it's part of football and something you want to be doing – travelling Thursdays and Sundays. That's what the best players do and we feel we can be doing that every single season here.
"It takes a bit of time to adapt to the relentlessness. But personally I like it. I like to be playing game after game.
“It’s maybe a little bit harder than we anticipated. If you do have a bad performance then you go again at the weekend. That's what our mentality has been. If you've got the best result in Europe, if you haven't got the best result in Europe, you still have to get a positive result in the league.
"There’s definitely some mental fatigue. The mental side of things is something I've had to adapt to as things have gone along. Some weeks are harder than others. There are other clubs who aren't doing it, but we know that's what we've got to do this season.
“The one thing we haven't really enjoyed about playing Thursday to Sunday is losing football games. We want to be winning every week. But the spirit in the squad is still high. We know we've got quality with the players we've got and we have to go again on Saturday with it.”
Despite all their issues, Hearts are still within touching distance of third place and should they spring a surprise against the champions it’ll set them up nicely for a pair of winnable games against RFS and Ross County before travelling to Istanbul for a match which could potentially be a dead rubber for both teams.
"I think we've got a game in hand over Hibs, who are in third and are three points ahead of us [prior to Friday’s game], so if we win that it's a completely different story,” he said. “Come Christmas time and the break, that's where we are looking to be, around that position, but we just have to keep pushing together as a team.
"We've got players coming back who will boost the team as well. We just need to keep pushing and hanging in there – and it starts again this weekend.”