Leigh Griffiths will arrive at Tynecastle on Sunday expecting action, drama, abuse, insults and one very intense football match. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
Hearts away is always a standout fixture for a Hibs-supporting Celtic striker who relishes the fervid Tynecastle atmosphere. Three goals in five appearances there over the last five years prove Griffiths’ appetite for one of Scotland’s most rousing venues.
He thrives on the cat-calling from Hearts fans knowing he harbours the ability to inflict damage upon their team. Keeping him quiet will be pivotal to any result garnered by Robbie Neilson’s side this weekend.
Griffiths will be in no mood for Christmas generosity. If anything, he will be evermore hungry to dent Hearts’ European aspirations. A solo goal and an assist from the Scotland striker helped Celtic eliminate the Edinburgh club from the League Cup in October, so the warning signs are there.
A rigid and defiant Hearts display kept Griffiths and Celtic out in a 0-0 draw at Celtic Park in September, but the 25-year-old inspired his team to that League Cup success a few weeks later. With 19 goals in 29 games, he is the Scottish Premiership’s leading goalscorer and a major threat on Sunday.
“Griffiths is on fire, he’s quality and he scores goals. His left foot is extremely good and if you give him a yard then he’ll put it away,” explained theformer Hearts left-back Kevin McHattie, who also helped stifle Griffiths just last month when his Kilmarnock side drew 0-0 at Parkhead.
“Playing for Hibs before, he’s going to enjoy coming to Tynecastle. He’ll enjoy playing in front of the Hearts fans and getting a few goals to show them what he’s good at. It will be a full house on Sunday and there aren’t many stadiums you go to in Scotland where it’s a full house these days. I think he’ll be up for that.”
Handing Griffiths a contract extension until 2021 last week is a sign of how valued he is at Celtic. He wants to become only the sixth Parkhead player in history to reach 200 goals [he is currently on 46] and has fought back from a calf injury with the aim of facing Hearts.
Yet he isn’t playing in an imperious Celtic team, as recent weeks and months have shown. Eliminations from both the Champions League and Europa League leave manager Ronny Deila under pressure, coupled with the fact Aberdeen are just one point behind at the top of the league.
All of the above adds more intrigue to the weekend’s trip to Edinburgh. “Celtic are out to prove a point and so is their manager. If their confidence is low then Hearts could take full advantage of that and cause an upset but I think it will be a close game,” says McHattie.
“I see big Juanma is out so I’m not sure what Hearts will do. I’ll be watching it because I think it will be a good one to watch.”
McHattie cites preparation as the key to taking anything against Celtic. Referring to Kilmarnock’s 0-0 draw, he said: “It was backs against the wall for most of the game but, collectively and individually, you have to do your jobs as a defence. On the day, we played a tight back four with two midfielders sitting in front. they did really well in protecting the defence.
“In training during the week, we worked on how to play against Celtic when they’re going to have most of the ball and that obviously paid off.
“The pace they have – soon as they get the ball they’re direct. That pace and movement is very hard to defend against and that’s why they’re sitting top of the league just now. Any game against Celtic is a massive game and you always look forward to playing it. We have done well against them since I joined Kilmarnock and obviously got that draw at Celtic Park. I always look forward to games against Celtic.
“We did very well defensively that day and tried to catch them on the counter-attack. Going to Parkhead and keeping a clean sheet is a hard thing to do so we were delighted with it and so was the manager. In recent weeks we haven’t done quite as well so we need to buck up our ideas again.”
That last sentence is a slight understatement. A run of five defeats and two draws in their last seven matches ensures Kilmarnock will spend Christmas in the Premiership’s relegation play-off spot.
Manager Gary Locke, who McHattie followed from Tynecastle to Rugby Park in August, finds himself under scrutiny from supporters, which worsened after a 4-0 home loss against Aberdeen last week.
A meeting between management and players on Monday saw both sides make clear their feelings. It was decided that a more streetwise approach may be necessary if the Ayrshire club are to fight their way out of trouble
“The manager spoke to us on Monday and I think it’s time we got our heads down and got on with the dirty stuff,” said McHattie.
“If a team gets a break of the ball and it means bringing a man down and sacrifice a yellow card, then we do that. These are the nasty things and the streetwise things that all the other teams in the league have. I think we need to bring some of that into our game.
“We also need to play with more confidence and that’s what the manager is trying to instil in training.
“All the boys back the manager. If we do well, he does well, which is what he’s looking for. Hopefully we’ll turn it round and things will be on the up after Christmas.”