The thrill of sharing a pitch with Riyad Mahrez has given Arnaud Djoum renewed impetus in his bid to keep progressing with Hearts.
The Cameroon internationalist found himself up against the Leicester City talisman and last season’s English PFA Player of the Year during his country’s 1-1 draw away to Algeria in World Cup qualifying nine days ago.
Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson has spoken previously of his belief that having his players exposed to international football will only benefit them when they pull on a maroon jersey. Djoum’s recent experiences are a prime case in point.
In addition to inspiring the midfielder – a driven character anyway – to strive for new heights, his early involvement in international football has also imbued him with the belief that, if he can hold his own against the likes of Mahrez, then he should fancy himself against any opponent in Scotland.
The buoyancy of pitting himself against the best player in Africa manifested itself in a man-of-the-match performance for Hearts in their 2-0 win over Dundee on Saturday. “I’m really enjoying being an international player – it has given me such a lift,” Djoum told the Evening News. “Even playing against Dundee, I had so much confidence because I know I was playing against Mahrez the week before. That gives me a real boost.
“We played a great game against Algeria, who are the best team in Africa at the moment. I was up against Mahrez quite a lot in the game. Technically you can see he is at a very high level, – he is the best player in Africa.
“It was a nice experience to see him and play against him. Mahrez, Slimani, Brahimi, Feghouli – they are technically and physically very strong. I tried to play my normal game against them. Of course I am not at their level but I did my best and I felt I competed well against them. One day I hope to play at the same level as them.”
In becoming an internationalist, Djoum has had to sacrifice much of his rest time. He admits the demands of travelling and playing when he might otherwise have been enjoying some time to chill out with his family has been a test, both mentally and physically, but for now the exhilaration of playing on an elevated stage is helping him overcome any niggling sense of tiredness.
“Because I am an internationalist now, the gaffer gave me a rest at St Johnstone away [last month] and that helped me,” he explained. “Being an internationalist means that when the other guys have a few days off and don’t have a game I am still away travelling and playing in games, which is not easy. It is hard that you don’t get that time to rest but at least we will get a few days to rest this week because we have no game at the weekend.”
Djoum’s form, by his own admission wasn’t as strong in the early part of the current campaign, as it was last season, when he swiftly emerged as something of a midfield talisman for Hearts after arriving 13 months ago. However, the 27-year-old feels that in his last two domestic matches, which have brought victories over Motherwell and Dundee, he has been back on top form. Towards the end of Saturday’s victory at Tynecastle, Djoum’s name could briefly be heard ringing round the stadium as a magnificent piece of skill, which capped a fine performance, had them in raptures.
“I am just enjoying the moment because everything is fine for me,” he said, in light of his recent resurgence. “I just have to continue to work hard because it is not easy to stay at a high level all the time – you have to work hard. I was happy with the way I played on Saturday. I started on the right of midfield but the gaffer gives me the freedom to go everywhere. I can come inside and pick up the ball and try to create something and I thought I did well in the first half – I also had a good shot at goal. When Tony [Watt] went off, I went into the No.10 position. I think I did well in that position – I got a lot of the ball and found a lot of space. I like that position as well.”
Djoum was thrilled that his exploits helped Hearts pick up another victory – their fifth in the last seven games – to maintain their position a point behind Aberdeen in second place. At the nine-game mark last term, the Jambos were a whopping eight points behind the Dons. Neilson’s side are currently the third top scorers in the Premiership and also boast the best defensive record in the league.
Despite these impressive stats, Hearts have, in a few games, been undermined by poor finishing. Djoum is adamant his team will become an even more formidable proposition once they start capitalising on the amount of chances they create, particularly early in matches. “It was a great result after the international break and it keeps us high in the league, so everybody is happy,” said Djoum. “In the first half we had a lot of chances but didn’t score and that made the game more difficult because it gave Dundee more confidence to try and win the game as well.
“I felt like we were dominant in the first half. That has been the case in most of our games recently but we need to start scoring quicker goals to make things easier for ourselves. We dominated most of the game against Dundee, apart from the first 15 minutes of the second half. The second half was difficult and they had chances but we kept trying to play our football and create chances and finally we scored. After the first goal, we got more space which made it easier for us to play.”