Robbie Neilson has challenged Hearts captain Alim Ozturk to respond positively to being dropped for Saturday’s draw at Aberdeen.
The Turk incurred the wrath of the head coach following an “unacceptable” defensive capitulation from the Tynecastle side as they allowed St Johnstone to score twice in the last 17 minutes on their way to a 3-2 victory in last Wednesday’s Betfred Cup match at McDiarmid Park.
Ozturk, who gave away the penalty that allowed Saints to equalise, was demoted to the substitutes’ bench for the subsequent league match at Pittodrie and watched on as centre-backs John Souttar and Igor Rossi repelled Aberdeen’s attacks in a 0-0 draw.
Neilson still views the skipper as a “key player” but explained that he will need to raise his game in order to force his way back into the side.
“I just felt we needed a change in there,” the head coach told the Evening News when asked about Ozturk’s omission. “After losing three goals at McDiarmid Park, we had to do something. You can’t just accept the way it went, so I had to change the back four. The ones that played at Aberdeen worked hard and got us a clean sheet, so it’s up to Alim now to fight to get back in because he’s one of our key players.
“He’s got the right type of character that he will fight to do that. We have a good squad here, so players will come in and out of the team. It shows everyone that you’ve got to fight to get into this team.”
One man who looks certain of a starting place in Saturday’s home game with Inverness Caledonian Thistle is Tony Watt.
The on-loan Charlton Athletic attacker has impressed Neilson in his three outings so far as he gradually increases his match fitness levels following a groin injury which prematurely ended his loan spell at Blackburn Rovers towards the end of last season.
Watt looked to be flagging physically towards the end of the goalless draw at Pittodrie, but Hearts felt completing a full match would be of benefit to him.
“That was Tony’s first 90 minutes in four months,” said Neilson. “The plan was 60 minutes against Celtic, 30 minutes against St Johnstone and 90 minutes against Aberdeen.
“If he does well this week [in training], he’ll start against Inverness and then it’s up to him to stay in the team.”
Meanwhile, Neilson explained that Hearts are having to be patient in their search for a new left winger.
“There’s a couple of left-sided players we’re interested in but these things always take time,” he said. “There’s nothing imminent, it’ll be a wee bit later before anything happens.”