BY IAIN COLLIN –[email protected]_sport
ROBBIE Neilson accepts Rangers should be regarded as realistic title challengers this season – but is thrilled Hearts are being forgotten amidst the Old Firm war of words.
The Gorgie men kick off the new campaign with the visit of champions Celtic on Sunday and are determined to build on last term’s third-placed finish.
That they were able to move seamlessly from Championship winners to European qualification in their first year back in the top-flight proves for Neilson that Rangers can be expected to piece together an instant title fight.
However, with Celtic’s Scott Brown and Rangers’ Kenny Miller dismissing each other’s hopes in recent days, Neilson insists he is happy for his side to take a back seat and go unnoticed.
He said: “A team of Rangers’ size, with the budget they’ve got and the players they’ve got, would be expecting to be challenging near the top of the league.
“But we’re delighted everyone is talking about Rangers and Celtic.
“It gets us under the radar, nobody is bothered about us, we can just go and win games and try to get as high up the league as we can.
“We’ll concentrate on ourselves and try to put a team together that is going to go and win (Sunday’s) game.
“You want to play in big games. We’re in a good place at the moment fitness-wise so it’s a great time to get Celtic.”
Hearts were dealt a massive blow before the domestic season was even on the horizon when they were knocked out of the Europa League by Maltese minnows Birkirkara last month.
That shock exit left them with a 17-day void to fill in their schedule ahead of tomorrow’s match, with Steven Pressley’s resignation at Fleetwood Town denying them a planned friendly last Saturday.
However, rather than fearing his side will be ‘undercooked’ for the big kick-off, Neilson insists it has given him and his coaches more time to perfect their game-plan for the arrival of Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic.
The head coach, who is thrilled to have signed up midfielder Arnaud Djoum on a new deal to 2019, added: “We’ve had competitive games, we’ve had the European games, then we’ve had a period without a game. It’s given us a chance to work on the team.
“Usually in pre-season, you get six weeks to work on your team and to get ready for the league.
“In Europe, you come in for the first game and then it’s the next game and the next game. You never get a chance to build.
“But we’ve had two weeks now where we can focus on how we want to play, as opposed to continually looking at the next game.”