A PUNISHING fixture sequence continues for Hearts when Partick Thistle visit Tynecastle tomorrow. Four games in ten days is stretching Robbie Neilson’s resources but his squad remains unbeaten in nine matches, with only one defeat in the last 14.
Wednesday night’s 3-0 triumph at Ross County in Dingwall was the perfect response to Sunday’s Scottish Cup collapse against Hibs. Tuesday’s replay at Easter Road looms large on the horizon but the Hearts players are well trained in these matters. While others may look upon Thistle as an inconvenience ahead of another Edinburgh derby, the important of tomorrow’s match is foremost in the players’ minds.
They returned from the Highlands in fine fettle in the early hours of Thursday morning. A contented feeling was evident within the squad after banishing the lingering frustration and disappointment from the weekend. A strong and clinical display secured a convincing win to open an 11-point gap over County, the nearest challengers to third-placed Hearts.
A berth in the Europa League qualifying rounds is becoming more realistic by the week for the Tynecastle support. Beating Thistle is no less vital to that end than winning at the Global Energy Stadium. Hibs in the Scottish Cup is always tasty but it is very much a case of first things first at Riccarton.
“It was important the gaffer got a reaction from the players on Wednesday,” admitted winger Sam Nicholson. “What happened on Sunday was very disappointing for us and for the fans, of course. I understand they weren’t happy but neither were we. It was important we went to Ross County and showed the right attitude.
“It was a hard game, the pitch wasn’t the best and there were times we just had to graft away and get the three points. It was third against fourth, it was going to be niggly but it’s great for us to get the points and move further ahead of Ross County in the league. It’s massive for us and massive for the club. It could be a very important three points come the end of the season.
“The Hibs game is massive but Partick is just as important. We have a lot of hard games coming up and we just have to try and win as many as we can. I don’t think we can say: ‘It doesn’t matter about Saturday, Hibs is more important’. Hibs is going to be our hardest game of the season, especially away at Easter Road. You saw how they played at Tynecastle, they were very good. We could’ve done better in the second half and they took advantage, so that’s something we’ll need to try and put right.”
The twin ambitions of a place in Europe and a Scottish Cup triumph are helping focus the minds of Nicholson and his colleagues. One is no more important than the other at this stage. “It’s neck-and-neck,” he said. “The boys are looking to have a great season overall. If we get a good cup run, that would be perfect for us. We also want to finish as high as we can in the league. We need to take it game by game. I think we’ve done that really well this season. We’ve never really got ahead of ourselves.
“We knew this season was going to be harder than last season. We knew there would be games where we’d be really frustrated and wouldn’t get the three points. That’s just part of this league. Sometimes, the draws you get during the season are important at the end of the season.”
The arrival of striker Abiola Dauda on loan from Vitesse Arnhem could be key to Hearts’ aspirations. Just like last year when Genero Zeefuik arrived to supplement a charge for the Championship title, Dauda may potentially be another mid-season tonic. He opened his scoring account in Scotland in exquisite fashion in the Highlands and Nicholson admitted he, for one, was extremely grateful.
“It was a very close game but the big man came on and did brilliantly,” he continued. “The first goal, he just passed it into the net. I don’t actually know how he’s done it. Everyone would’ve thought: ‘Pass it to someone’. Instead, he’s passed it into the net.
“The second goal, with his other foot, landed in the top corner. It was perfect. That’s what you need – subs coming on to make a difference. I’m not going to lie, I was knackered for the last 20 minutes. To see him coming on and give me a bit of a breather by getting the two goals was ideal.
“Where we are just now [in the league] is the target but we want to keep on improving no matter where we are. We’re third at the moment so we want to chase second now. We want to keep playing the way we’re playing and winning games. Usually, trips like Ross County away are much harder for us so that was a good three points.
“The big man came on and gave us some breathing space with his two finishes. We’re all delighted for him because we’ve seen him do it in training. He didn’t get the best service against Hibs I thought, and that’s my fault as well because a winger needs to supply him with the ball.
“He made his own service on Wednesday night and hopefully there’s many more to come. His confidence will be flying now. The gaffer said that’s why he was brought to the club. He’s quick and he’s going to get goals. He gives us another outlet up top. With Osman Sow going, it’s good that we can look to somebody else.”
Neilson is also mixing up formations and systems to help guide his players through this busy period. He may again revert to two forwards tomorrow after deploying Juanma as a lone striker supported by midfielder Arnaud Djoum against Ross County.
“I think we’ve got the players to play many different systems,” said Nicholson. “The gaffer has recruited well. We played a different formation on Wednesday than what we’re used to. With this team, the gaffer can do that. He’s got the players for different styles of play. I think we executed our game plan perfectly.”