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Neilson: Hearts win over 'Well as important as Old Firm victory

ROBBIE NEILSON recalls the lethargy which characterised Hearts' finish to last season. That's why the captain considers victory over Motherwell this evening as important as winning against the Old Firm.
Europa League talk has been rife around Riccarton since Saturday's defeat of Dundee United, with Hearts contemplating a possible return to European football after a three-year absence. Winning remaining home fixtures will be essential to their ambitions, but Neilson attaches special importance to tonight.

Speaking at the club's training ground, he revealed the excitement coursing up and down the corridors with Hearts sitting prominently in third place. Contrast that with the despondency of 12 months ago as a bottom-six finish transpired to bring the campaign to an ignominious end. Neilson has little doubt which scenario he prefers.

From last year's mediocrity, Hearts have been transformed into a genuine force by their astute manager, Csaba Laszlo. Entering the business end of the season, it's now all about closing the deal. "They are all big games at this point," said Neilson. "If we win tonight against Motherwell it's the same as getting three points at Parkhead. It's all about getting points on the board now and winning games. Saturday's game at Dundee United was a perfect example of that.

"You only need to look back to last year when we were in the bottom six and there were no big games coming up. It was lower league teams we were playing against and the season just ebbed itself out. That was very disappointing.

"There's no doubt you want to be in this position. I've been here in previous seasons when we've been challenging, going for Europe, going for second or third place or the cup. It's great to still be in that position come the end of the season, when you know every game is a big game."

Hearts have a doubt over Michael Stewart for this evening as the midfielder struggles to overcome flu. Marius Zaliukas sits out the last of his four-match suspension, while Larry Kingston and Mike Tullberg remain absent through long-term injuries. Neilson is encouraged by the resilience shown in the face of adversity this season. Despite a sequence of injuries and suspensions, plus the sale of previous captain Christophe Berra to Wolverhampton Wanderers, Laszlo's reorganisation skills and the versatility of certain players have helped maintain the club's voyage towards Europe.

"Whenever there's been a problem with players being out through injury or suspension, the manager has worked on it throughout the week leading up to the game," continued Neilson. "The players who have come in have responded. (Christos] Karipidis was playing centre midfield but he's a natural centre-back, so it's not too much of an issue for him dropping back.

"Eggert is a young player who has experience of playing everywhere. He's one of these guys who can come in to any position and do well. We've been lucky that we've had two players to slot in comfortably since losing Christophe and Marius."

Motherwell arrive with their own European agenda as manager Mark McGhee tries to re-enact last season's prosperity. McGhee's stated aim has always been third place but his side arrive at Tynecastle nine points adrift of their target. That, according to Neilson, puts this evening's match in the must-win category.

"It's a game Motherwell have to win if they're going to get into Europe. They have to beat us really," he opined. "If we get the three points then it puts them out of the equation a bit. So for them it's very important, but it's no different for us in terms of going for third place.

"Saturday's result was a great result for us. Going up to Dundee and getting three points was magnificent, but it's done now. The points are on the board and now we're on to the next game. Motherwell at home is tough but we are confident enough after winning at Tannadice that we can get a result at Tynecastle.

"Looking back, the disappointing thing was losing that goal against St Mirren. If we'd seen that game out we would be even further ahead."

Laszlo, too, has lamented Andy Dorman's late equaliser last month but he would be equally disappointed with Hearts' efforts last time they encountered Motherwell, at Fir Park in January.

"It was a rescheduled game played in midweek," recalled Neilson of the 1-0 defeat. "Fir Park is a tough place at the best of times and I know a lot has been made of the surface, but even when the surface is good it's still a difficult place to go and play. The pitch is tight and that makes for a difficult environment.

|Not a lot of football gets played in any games there, but we've got them back at Tynecastle now. We can look to the game at the start of the season when we played well and got the three points. We have to look to repeat that."

Neilson pointed to Hearts' defensive resolve – a catalyst in Saturday's victory at Tannadice – as key to their European quest. "If the defence plays well, as we did at the weekend, then we aren't going to lose games," he said.

"The manager is very good at setting the team up tactically to try and stop teams playing and scoring. That's one of the major things in Scottish football now. There aren't a lot of goals scored in the SPL, it's mainly from corners and free-kicks. If you can set yourself up to defend well against set-pieces, not a lot of teams will score against you from open play. The manager realises that and he's got the team shaped well for these situations.

"If we get the result tonight it would give us confidence going into a ten-day break before the trip to Easter Road."

Indeed, big games are coming thick and fast for Hearts with the Motherwell fixture preceding trips to Hibs and Rangers. Nobody is happier with that scenario than Robbie Neilson.

Taken from the Scotsman

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