BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
Hearts captain Alim Ozturk insists the Jambos can announce themselves as future title challengers when they cross swords with the Premiership’s top two in the space of six hectic days.
The capital club travel to Celtic Park this afternoon seeking their first league win at the home of the champions since 2007.
Robbie Neilson then takes his side to Inverness on Tuesday evening before hosting Aberdeen – currently four points behind the Hoops – in front of the TV cameras next Friday.
A 3-0 defeat against St Johnstone has seen the Jambos’ slim chances of being part of the championship shake-up effectively ended, however they will have a major say in where they trophy goes come May.
But next season Ozturk intends to be part of the race for the Premiership crown after hailing the progress of the club’s talented youngsters and hailing the draw of European football, with Hearts set to secure a Europa League berth.
Asked whether wins over Celtic and the Dons would serve as a statement of intent ahead of a Hearts title charge next term, Ozturk said: “I think so. If you want to play for something – then these are the teams who are above us and playing for the title.
“It’s a really good test for us to show what we can do. If you want something special then you have to beat these teams, so we will do everything we can to prove we can do that.
“We have drawn twice with Celtic and lost in the League Cup, but I think we did really well. Against Aberdeen, we lost twice in the league but won in the Scottish Cup so we have something to prove. We have to give a good answer to the challenge.
“If you see the potential of our team, we had five guys away last week with the [Scotland] Under-21s. We have good talented players at this club. They are young but they have played a lot of games so they have experience.
“That makes us stronger and maybe with a couple of new guys it will be a different team again and an exciting season.
“European football will encourage people to come here. If they hear we are in the Europa League it makes it easier to attract people. I know that’s the case for me and it will be the same for other players.”
Injury has robbed Ozturk of the opportunity to face the Hoops this season – two draw and a defeat – but he was part of the sides which succumbed to 3-0 and 4-0 defeats in both of the major cup competitions last term.
However, he has seen enough to suggest Hearts can stun Celtic and pile the pressure on Ronny Deila.
He continued: “This is my first game against them because I was injured for the period when we played them in all three games. I’m looking forward to it.
“We are a different team from the games we lost against Celtic last year. Everything is different this year. We have new players and a new team and we are looking forward to Saturday.
“The defeats against Celtic last season have been among the toughest to take of my time in Scotland so it would be special to get a win against them.”
And Ozturk is adamant he is arriving at Celtic Park at the peak of his powers.
The Tynecastle skipper missed three months of this season after undergoing surgery to cure a hernia complaint, but has enjoyed a rich vein of form since returning to fill fitness.
Given he sat out the defeat against St Johnstone with a minor knock, he has enjoyed four successive clean sheets.
Ozturk added: “I’ve been really happy with my performances since I’ve come back from injury. I was struggling with a lot of pain at the start of the season but now I feel good. I have no pain at all and I feel fit again.
“I feel 100 per cent and that’s great. I think it’s the best period in my Hearts career.”