Lee McCulloch lays down a challenge to Hearts players ahead of Premiership opener against Celtic
Although Hearts have already qualified for the Premier Sports Cup knockout phase, Sunday’s final group match against Inverness Caledonian Thistle still carries huge significance.
Victory would enhance the Edinburgh club’s hopes of a seeding berth in the last-16 draw, but equally important for players is the chance to make one last impression before the cinch Premiership begins.
Hearts are guaranteed a high-octane start to the league campaign against Celtic at Tynecastle Park next Saturday evening, and players are playing for places in manager Robbie Neilson’s team. The Inverness match could be make-or-break for some.
“We’ve got a good squad and we know the importance of the Celtic game but we’ve not really spoken about that yet because we’ve got an important game on Sunday,” explained Lee McCulloch, one of Neilson’s assistants.
“Sunday’s game is a chance for the players to stake a claim for the starting line-up if they want to play the following Saturday in such a massive game.”
Hearts have beaten Peterhead, Cove Rangers and Stirling Albion so far in Group A and haven’t conceded a single competitive goal so far this season. That helped goalkeeper Craig Gordon break the club record of consecutive shutouts after a run of seven in a row to finish last season.
Neilson’s side will finish the section with a 100 per cent record if they overcome the Highlanders and Gordon will be aiming to extend that run of clean sheets to 11 if possible.
McCulloch explained that no-one in the camp will be allowed to relax despite the fact Hearts are already through to the next stage of the competition. Changes to the team from Tuesday’s win at Stirling are expected, but they will not be wholesale.
Continuity at this stage is important as the Celtic match looms on the horizon. “It’s the manager’s choice but I dare say there will be one or two changes [against Inverness],” added McCulloch.
“It’s really important to keep the momentum going, we’ve won three from three, top of the group, we’ve already qualified but we need to keep that momentum going. We won’t be taking it lightly.”