RESULTS suggest the gap between Hearts and Celtic is closing.
The Edinburgh club’s infamous 7-0 Scottish Cup slaughter at the hands of their Glasgow rivals almost two years ago was very much a nadir. It was followed by 3-0 and 4-0 losses in both national cup competitions last season. Little over four weeks ago, the teams drew 0-0 at Celtic Park.
What happens tonight in the quarter-final of the Utilita League Cup is anyone’s guess. However, Hearts’ resurgence is clear. They do not pertain to be near Celtic’s level either in football or financial terms, but their gradual progress is undeniable from the dark days of administration. So much so that, if they beat win this evening, they will be favourites to lift the trophy.
Gone is the fear-factor which once enveloped the Tynecastle dressing-room ahead of matches with Celtic. A gritty defensive display in Glasgow last month raised belief that Robbie Neilson’s squad can compete with the top team in Scotland. Celtic are the benchmark, but Hearts are no longer miles off – underlined by their position of third in the Ladbrokes Premiership, six points behind Ronny Deila’s league leaders.
“It’s testament to how far we’ve come over the past couple of years. We obviously took a few beatings in that time,” said winger Jamie Walker, who endured all of the above defeats and played in the recent stalemate. “Last year in the cup, I missed a good chance and we missed a penalty at Parkhead [in the 3-0 game]. Then we’ve drawn 0-0 there last month so we can look forward to this one.
“It’s great to know we’re getting closer. You don’t want to go into a match thinking about how many you’re going to lose by. That wasn’t a nice feeling. Everyone knows how good Celtic can be on their day. At that time, they had Gary Hooper and Victor Wanyama, who is now playing every week in the English Premier League. We were still young and I think it was a learning curve for all of us. We’ve come a long way since then. It’s helped us a lot, not just the Celtic games but a few other games over that season [2013/14, when Hearts were in administration]. There were a few matches where we got a bit of a beating. You never know at the time what the future holds. Looking back on it now, it has definitely stood us in good stead. We had a good season in the Championship last season and we’ve come up this season. It’s worked out well now and we’re progressing well.”
There is no chance of Neilson allowing his players to become over-confident, or to wallow in the fairly rapid progress made of late. Celtic’s strength is their ability to punish even the slightest touch of complacency. Deila has come under pressure of late due to sub-standard performances in Europe but domestically his players are clear favourites to retain their Premiership title.
Cup competitions offer more scope for an upset given their one-off nature. It is that Hearts will look to seize upon tonight and force their way into the semi-finals.
“Celtic have had a few defeats but they showed at the weekend what a good side they are when they beat Dundee United 5-0,” continued Walker. “If you want to win a trophy then you need to beat the best teams along the way, which means Celtic or Aberdeen. Concentrating on the league and aiming for the top six was our priority but we take every cup game as it comes. In the early rounds, you’re just thinking about getting through. When you’re getting close to the semi-finals you think maybe it could happen.
“If we got through tonight, we would maybe be favourites to win the trophy. Our last few results have been good. We got a draw at Celtic Park, drew against Kilmarnock when we should have won, and then beat Dundee United and Ross County. Everyone is flying. We know it will be tough but we’re looking forward to it. Both teams won at the weekend and are in good form. It’s under the floodlights and it’ll be a good atmosphere.”
Walker still rues Hearts’ profligacy in last season’s League Cup tie with Celtic in Glasgow. As the interval approached with the hosts 1-0 ahead, a casual backpass by Emilio Izaguirre gifted Walker the ball, but his first-time shot thundered against the crossbar and bounced clear. An even better chance arrived for Osman Sow ten minutes after half-time. Virgil van Dijk was penalised by referee Willie Collum for pulling the Swede down inside the box. Sow took the resultant penalty but sent it soaring over Craig Gordon’s crossbar. Just a minute later, Celtic were awarded the penalty which would put the tie out of Hearts’ reach. Walker knows neither he nor his team-mates can afford such wastefulness in front of goal this evening.
“I thought I should’ve scored with my chance,” he stressed. “Even the penalty would’ve made it 1-1 but Celtic went up the park and scored basically straight from our penalty miss. We need to make sure that, if we get a chance tonight, we take it.
“Every time you play Celtic, you need to work hard and limit them to as few chances as possible. Then, if you get a chance, you have to put it away. With the quality they’ve got, if they get one chance then they’ll probably score. Against Kilmarnock a few weeks ago, we missed a few chances but overall we’ve taken most of our chances this season so we are learning.
“We had a blip with a few disappointing results a few weeks ago but our belief never really left us. We always believe in ourselves. We know we’re a good side, we just kept doing the right things and the results have started to come again.”