After ten-man Hearts drew 0-0 at Hamilton, Anthony Brown picks out five key points from a battle at New Douglas Park.
Hearts’ away-day resilience should be commended
They might not have won an away game since Hallowe’en, but no team apart from Inverness, back in September, has had it easy at home to Hearts this season. The Jambos face a test of character every time they play away because no ground in the country produces the same big-game atmosphere as Tynecastle. Often they are having to adapt to playing in soulless, half-empty grounds, where it can be harder to rouse themselves. Plastic pitches, like those of Hamilton and Kilmarnock, don’t help either, especially in windy conditions like Sunday’s. Nor do first-half red cards. Hearts have had some seriously testing assignments at Fir Park, McDiarmid Park, Rugby Park and New Douglas Park over the last two months and taken a point from each of them. They were within a couple of minutes of doing likewise at Pittodrie. Nonetheless, their foreign players, who are still acclimatising to the unique demands of Scottish football, will be delighted when the wintry conditions give way to more favourable spring weather and away games become less attritional.
Alim Ozturk is back in business.
Some supporters questioned Ozturk’s suitability for the Premiership after the newly-appointed captain suffered a clear form dip at the start of the season. However, it soon became apparent that hernia surgery undergone by the defender in May hadn’t had the desired effect and that he was still in pain and in need of another operation. Since returning to the team last month, he has been moving more comfortably and looks far more assured as a result. Ozturk was a commanding presence as his ten-man team repelled Hamilton on Sunday and also played a captain’s role in trying to restrain angry team-mates amid the Igor Rossi flashpoint.
Hearts destined to finish third
This team just don’t like losing, as evidenced by an impressive run of only one league defeat since September. They are now eight points clear of fourth place Ross County with a game in hand. They are a level above three-quarters of this dog-eat-dog division and no-one from beneath is going to catch them. The problem for Hearts is that second-place Aberdeen are eight points above them. The Dons won’t win the title, but the thrill of chasing Celtic to the end will ensure they don’t drop off enough to let Hearts overhaul them. Third place and a return to Europe looks a shoo-in for Robbie Neilson’s team.
Things looking ominous for Billy King
Having done so well against Motherwell a week previously, it would have been galling for King to have only his seventh league start of the season cut short when he was hauled off at half-time against Hamilton on Sunday. For much of the past two years, his name has been spoken in the same lofty breath as fellow young wingers Sam Nicholson and Jamie Walker. He started 22 of Hearts’ 36 league games last season and was widely deemed to be one of their most dangerous attackers, with several assists and nine goals illuminating a host of exciting performances. However, his stock appears to have fallen in the eyes of Hearts’ management this season, with Walker and Nicholson clearly considered more preferable options when fit. His apparent marginalisation is curious given that he generally does well when starting matches. Although he had a relatively quiet first-half on Sunday, the same could be said for most of the Hearts team in what were horrible playing conditions, yet he was hooked in a like-for-like substitution. The worry for King is that he now faces additional competition from Dario Zanatta, who replaced him at half-time on Sunday and is clearly highly rated.
Prince Buaben is Hearts’ Mr Dependable
Buaben has played far more games than any other Hearts midfielder this season, having sat out only two of their 23 league games. This is a remarkable feat given that he started the season with hardly any pre-season under his belt and was, by his own admission, well short of fitness following a lengthy lay-off at the end of last term. The Ghanaian was irked by some ill-judged criticism of his form earlier in the season, but the fact he has remained a regular despite the arrival of Arnaud Djoum and the return to fitness of Miguel Pallardo in the autumn underlines how highly he is regarded by Hearts management. He is currently being shoehorned into an unorthodox wide position, and although his shortage of pace means he will never be able to play like a winger, he is performing this role to good effect, keeping things ticking over and providing a reliable presence to his team-mates. Wherever he is deployed, Buaben is a vital cog in the Hearts machine.