Craig Levein knows Hearts will have to be clever if they are to win at Celtic Park today and won’t be able to deploy the same tactics that have served them so well in recent home victories against the defending champions.
The Tynecastle side head to Glasgow’s east end boasting a four-point advantage over Celtic at the top of the Ladbrokes Premiership. They have already beaten Brendan Rodgers’ side 1-0 at home this season and recorded a famous 4-0 triumph in Gorgie last December based on high-tempo pressing. Hearts haven’t won at Parkhead for nine years, while they were criticised by some for being too timid in their approach during last weekend’s 3-0 defeat by the Hoops in the Betfred Cup semi-final at BT Murrayfield.
Levein explained that implementing a plan to get Celtic on the back foot, particularly outwith the confines of Tynecastle, is a seriously tricky thing to achieve.
“If we play for 90 minutes and win 1-0 with a set-piece, I’ll be thrilled,” said the Hearts manager. “People talk about going through there and having a go, but what does that mean? We went to Rangers and ‘had a go’ and were 2-0 down within ten minutes. The best approach is the one that gets you the points. That’s what you have to think about, not some people who’ve never managed a football team in their life shouting what you should be doing. There’s enough idiots on the terracing, never mind in the TV studios as well. It’s easy to say ‘have a go’ but it’s not so easy to do.”
Levein doesn’t envisage last weekend’s defeat at Murrayfield – only Hearts’ second of the season in all competitions – having an adverse effect on his team’s morale ahead of today’s rematch.
“When you’re playing against a team with their resources and the quality they’ve got, you can’t take a defeat as a terminal blow,” he said. “You just have to dust yourself down and get on with it.
“The challenge is to find a way of winning this game away from home. We’ve got a fair idea of what works for us on a smaller pitch but on a bigger pitch it’s more difficult.
“We have a way of playing them at home which suits us. It’s not the same away. The distances are too big on the bigger pitches to do what we do at home so we have to play in a different way. We have to be smarter. We know what we’re trying to do. We just have to see if we can execute it.”
Celtic have won each of their past six domestic matches, and Levein senses they are starting to rediscover their mojo after a start to the campaign in which Rodgers’ double-treble winners looked to be losing their way.
“Under Brendan, they have been relentless,” said Levein. “They had a little wobble at the beginning of the season. There were rumours about Brendan not being happy, wanting away and stuff like that. But that seems to have died down. It’s never great when there is all that stuff, if it was true, but that’s all calmed down. They’re back doing what they did in previous seasons. I don’t know if they are at their best. I haven’t seen enough of them to say that for sure.”
Hearts will have striker Steven MacLean back from suspension today, while Levein was relieved to report no fresh fitness issues after losing key quartet Uche Ikpeazu, Steven Naismith, Christophe Berra and John Souttar to long-term injury.
With the prospect of opening up a seven-point advantage over the champions, right-back Michael Smith is determined to ensure Hearts put in a strong performance.
“It’s a massive game,” said the Northern Irishman. “We are back in the league after playing them in the cup and hopefully we can go there and give a good account of ourselves and do better than Sunday and get something from the game.
“At Parkhead it is always going to be a difficult game but Sunday is out of our heads now. We played pretty well on Wednesday against Hibs so we are looking to continue that.
“I would say our tactics worked reasonably well in the first half against Celtic last weekend. They had to change their formation and they made an early substitution which showed it was working and we did stifle their attacks but when we got the ball we just weren’t composed enough. That was our problem. We didn’t create a lot when we did have the ball so we are going to have to be better at that this weekend.”