Hearts' Mihai Popescu reveals his Rangers target after two-week quarantine
Romanian says he is ready to deal with Tynecastle pressure
Two weeks in quarantine tested Mihai Popescu’s endurance. Hearts delivered food to his new home while his girlfriend isolated in separate accommodation. The two were reunited on Saturday, 24 hours after the Romanian defender played his first match for his new club.
Popescu impressed in Friday’s friendly at Partick Thistle on his second day in Scottish society. He is already setting lofty targets, including returning Hearts to the Premiership and beating compatriot Ianis Hagi, the Rangers forward, for a second time.
“Of course I know Hagi. I haven't spoken to him yet because we don't have a friendly relationship yet – we haven't met up,” said Popescu, who signed a two-year contract with Hearts.
“I've played against him and hopefully I will start to speak to him because we're both Romanian and we're together in Scotland. I'll send him a message and maybe we can go for food or a coffee to speak about life here.
“He's been here for some time already and is doing good things at Rangers. I hope he does well in the future.
“I played against him for Dinamo against his father's team, Viitorul. I played against them many times but only once against Ianis because he went to Fiorentina and other clubs.
“It was a good challenge but we won, we beat them 1-0. I want to get Hearts promoted so I can play against him again in the Premiership next season.
“I've got a two year contract here – the first to promote the club and the second to be in a top six team in Scotland.
“The people in Romania watch a lot of Hagi. They follow everything he does here in Scotland.
“In the press back home, they write if he does good things here. Or if he has a bad game, they don't put him in a good position in the press.
“But I don't know why because he plays well every game for Rangers. Steven Gerrard wouldn't pick him if he wasn't playing well. I'd like to play against him again in Scotland – and to beat him again.”
He has had plenty time to contemplate the prospect during the last fortnight. Popescu joined Hearts on a free transfer from Dinamo Bucharest last month and had to instantly self-isolate due to coronavirus laws on arrivals from Romania.
His girlfriend landed in Edinburgh two days later and had to follow the same protocols, but not in the same home as Popescu. Her own quarantine ended on Saturday.
“I had to stay only at home. I couldn't go out even for food,” explained the player. “The guys from the club brought me food and I couldn't even meet with them.
“They met me at reception with masks on – I took the food and went straight back home. I couldn't do anything. They sent me a programme for the exercise bike, along with stretches, abs work, push ups, stuff like that. But what can you do at home?”
Plan the next phase of your career, perhaps? Popescu was told by the Dinamo coach Cosmin Contra he had no future at the club and Hearts stepped in to sign the former St Mirren defender.
If he replicates the form shown in Paisley in 2019, he will be an excellent acquisition. “I spoke with St Mirren about if I could come back but I had a contract with Dinamo, so they wanted me to play there.
“I couldn’t come back, but now I’m finished with Dinamo and have signed to play with Hearts for two years. I’m happy with this. I had some other offers, not from Scotland, but in other countries. When I received this offer, I thought about it and spoke with my family.
“This was the big chance for me to get back into Scottish football at a big club. I've read about Hearts' history, I know it's a famous club in Scotland with a lot of fans and a nice stadium. So I'm happy to be here and I'm looking forward to playing.”
He is also enthusiastic about the pressures of being a major scalp in Scotland’s Championship. “For sure, every team will want to beat Hearts this season,” said the 27-year-old.
“That's normal, when you play against a big club you want to beat them. It's to prove that you're a good player. But I like to play with that pressure.
“When I was with Dinamo, which is also a big club, we played all the time to win. So there was pressure in every game, every training session. I'm happy with that.
“I think that means Hearts are one point ahead already because it will make us more focused in the games. Everyone knows what we have to do.”