Robbie Neilson has ordered Hearts to stay disciplined tonight at Ibrox and urged referee Bobby Madden to deal with any over-zealous tackling.
Late challenges by Rangers players injured Hearts’ Kevin McHattie and Soufian El Hassnaoui when the teams met at Tynecastle in November. Neilson said he does not expect a repeat of the reckless tackling that day but will instruct his players to be physical and not careless.
Madden takes charge this evening as Hearts try to increase their 13-point lead atop the Scottish Championship to 16 with a win. Rangers need three points to keep alive their slim hopes of winning the title. Emotions are sure to run high and Neilson is eager for his players to keep control.
McHattie and El Hassnaoui are still recovering from the knee and ankle injuries they sustained in the November meeting, which Hearts won 2-0. Rangers’ aggression that afternoon spilled over, with Steven Smith red-carded for serious foul play following a lunge on Callum Paterson. Neilson expects tonight’s encounter to be similarly fierce but backed Madden to keep proceedings in order.
“I don’t expect that again. I expect a physical game with tackles going in,” he said. “A couple of tackles last time went over the line and I hope it doesn’t go as far as that tonight. If it does, it’s up to the referee to deal with it and hopefully he will. Bobby is a good referee. He was in charge of our game with Hibs at Easter Road and he did really well. I don’t have any issues with that. I’m sure he’ll take care of it. From our point of view, we need to be physical but we need to make sure we don’t cross the line. We need to make sure we keep 11 men on the pitch and that we’re disciplined in what we do. If we need to be physical, we’ll be physical, but there is a limit.
“We lost Kev after the last game but Adam Eckersley came in and did really well. Kev will be back in a couple of weeks. Losing Soufian gave us a bit of a problem because we already had [Dale] Carrick out and [Osman] Sow out. [James] Keatings came in and lead the line really well on his own. Now we’ve got Genero Zeefuik in. Soufian will start training again with us next week. it was disappointing to lose him but that’s the reason we have a strong squad.”
Neilson acknowledged that Hearts will be difficult to catch if they leave Glasgow with three points and a 16-point lead over Rangers. However, he stressed that even a defeat still leaves the Edinburgh club in a commanding position.
“It would be difficult but not impossible to catch us if we win. We can’t take our foot off the gas at all. We need to keep working hard, keep going and do the right things. People have said we’d get complacent at seven points ahead. Then it was we’d get complacent at ten points. It’s important we stay focused.
“We’ll try to pass the ball, get it into good areas and get our best players on the ball to create things. We’ve got a chance here to go and win the game. We’re sitting in a very good position which gives us a chance to go and try to win it. We’re not in a position where we just need a draw.
“If we win, great. If we draw, fair enough. Even if we lose, we’re still sitting with a ten-point cushion which is fantastic at this point in the season. If we were going into tonight’s game with a seven-point lead and we won, we’d be absolutely over the moon to be ten points clear. We’d be happy and it would give us a great lift.
“We will be positive and we will go to win. We want the gap to get to 16 but if it doesn’t then we’re still in a great position at this stage in the season.”