Hearts will go for Celtic’s jugular tomorrow, of that there is little doubt.
They achieved a 4-0 win over the Premiership champions last year with that approach, and even part of May’s 3-1 defeat at Tynecastle Park saw Hearts cause their visitors problems with an attacking mentality.
So, come 12.30pm tomorrow, expect passion, energy, aggression and lots of pressing from those in maroon. Don’t forget the effect of a raucous crowd inside the sold-out Gorgie venue. It was made for fixtures like this.
“This is as tough as it comes, other than going away to Parkhead,” said the Hearts manager, Craig Levein. “To a certain extent we had some success last season, particularly in the two home matches. When I watched back over both games they were actually very similar.
“The scoreline wasn’t but in the second match we got a perfectly good goal disallowed to go 1-0 up and I’m sure that would have made a big difference in the match. That was a sore one to get a poor refereeing decision like that that could have decided the outcome of the game.
“I don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t employ the same tactics that we did in both of the home matches we had – we did the same in the away match as well. That would be telling Brendan [Rodgers] what we’re going to do, but I think he would know anyway.”
The Celtic manager might anticipate the gameplan but knowing the personnel is another task entirely. Hearts’ 13 summer signings give Levein more attacking weaponry to throw at the opposition. Kyle Lafferty, Steven Naismith, Steven MacLean and Uche Ikpeazu are all vying for places and any three from that quartet are expected to start.
“We have more options and different ways of scoring goals and more players who I feel can score,” said Levein. “So I feel we can create opportunities. It just makes me feel I can do something different during a game to change the course of events.
“As a coach that’s something you want to be able to do all over the park. Now we can pick seven subs you can just about cover all the options.”
New players may be taken aback as kick-off approaches. Betfred Cup ties against Cove Rangers, Raith Rovers, Cowdenbeath and Inverness, then an opening league match at Hamilton, don’t exactly prepare you for Celtic visiting Tynecastle. “The thing about Celtic games is I don’t need to prepare them for it,” said Levein. “The excitement, the size of the fixture, the publicity, the interest, is something that they all infuse through different things through the week.
“There is a definite build-up of tension coming into a game like this. Players can’t get away from that. My real challenge at times is keeping them just underneath the line that dictates whether it gets overly aggressive or not.
“I don’t have any issues about them understanding the nature of this match or feeling that we’re going into a game where we need to be at our absolute best to compete and make it a level playing field. Keeping them calm will be the challenge more than anything.
“A lot of these players are here for this type of fixture. They’re here because they want to be involved in front of a full house, in a game live on TV which can enhance them as players and their profiles.
“This league is widely covered by TV. Where some of our players have been, they haven’t been exposed to the TV coverage and media interest they’re going to get here. This game for them is the first one this season that they’re going to be excited about.”
One of Levein’s predecessors at Tynecastle, John McGlynn, has watched the Edinburgh club in the early weeks of the campaign in his role as Celtic scout. Levein himself was in Glasgow on Wednesday to see Celtic draw 1-1 with AEK Athens in their Champions League qualifier. The return leg awaits on Tuesday, with a potentially powderkeg trip to Hearts sandwiched in between.
“Celtic are not an awful lot different to last season,” said Levein. “On Wednesday night, they changed shape a couple of times and they know what they’re doing, but when it comes to playing at Tynecastle I think it’s important that we play with lots of energy, enthusiasm and make the game as competitive as possible.”
Does Wednesday’s result help Hearts? “I don’t know. Sometimes these things go one way or the other,” remarked Levein. “We are stuck in between the two most important games of their season right now, certainly financially.
“I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Brendan brought in a couple of bodies between now and the weekend. With that result, I think there will be an urgency to speed up any process of strengthening their squad.”
Judging Hearts is also difficult. They won their last three games 5-0, 5-0 and 4-1 against Cowdenbeath, Inverness and Hamilton respectively. Levein will not get carried away.
“I have no idea of where we are at the moment. We’ve got a lot of new players and some of them aren’t up to full speed yet. I’m pleased with the progress we’ve made but we haven’t played Celtic or a lot of teams in the league who could test us severely. I’m hopeful things are heading in the right direction.
“I just feel that if we want to improve we’ve got to compete with Celtic. I think we’re getting there but they do have a significant advantage over us with the size of budget. We do everything we can to try and turn things in our favour to give us the best chance of winning.”