Hearts interim boss admits neck-and-neck title races make it even harder for others

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Hearts interim manager Austin MacPhee believes extracting points from the Old Firm has become more difficult because there is little margin for error in a neck-and-neck race for the Ladbrokes Premiership title.

Rangers, their opponents at Ibrox tomorrow, currently trail Celtic on goal difference in a campaign that has seen the Glasgow heavyweights each drop points in only two league games so far this term.

A nine point gap already exists between the leading pair and third place Aberdeen, and that’s with the Dons having played one more game.

Hearts did manage to hold Rangers to a 1-1 draw at Tynecastle in October, although the chasm in quality between the sides was demonstrated in a 3-0 success for Steven Gerrard’s side in the recent Betfred Cup semi-final.

Rangers head into the game buoyed by Thursday’s 2-2 Europa League draw at Feyenoord and MacPhee acknowledges that it will take a momental effort from his team if they are to leave Govan with any reward.

“Rangers also beat Porto (in the Europa League) and they’re worth £250 million,” remarked MacPhee. 

“The other thing is that Celtic and Rangers are now driving each other and every point is a prisoner in the title race. 

“Maybe before when Rangers were coming back through the leagues, when they were competing with Celtic they could occasionally have their eye off the ball. 

“Now they’re pushing each other and by default it can become more difficult to take points off them.”

Hearts, however, have form when it comes to defying the odds. After all, they were the team that ended Celtic’s incredible 69-game unbeaten run in December 2017.

MacPhee, who takes charge of his fourth straight game since Craig Levein’s dismissal, has reminded the players of that feat.

“I spoke to the players on Friday morning about games where that has happened. 

“The most notable one for Hearts in recent times has probably been the 4-0 game against Celtic. 

“There was snow that week and we didn’t train a lot because of it. We had a lot of injuries, Michael Smith had to play centre back, Harry Cochrane was in the team at that point and individual moments in the game allow you to maintain your belief. 

“We need to be at our absolute best, take our chances that we have and manage the game well. 

“We realise from even watching them from the other night the threat that they have.”

Keeping 25-goal Alfredo Morelos at bay will be at forefront of MacPhee’s mind after watching the Colombian score both goals against Feyenoord.

“You have to get the balance right between players not being spooked in being given too much information and over-thinking things,” he added.

“But you can know certain things about him (Morelos).” 

Sunday’s clash could potentially be MacPhee’s last game in charge, with Hearts said to have identified former Barnsley and Hannover 96 manager Daniel Stendel as the man they want to replace Levein.

MacPhee, however, was giving nothing away. 

He added: “I speak to Ann every day and that’s all I can really say. I don’t have a day when I start or stop. 

“I genuinely just look to the next game and try to have the team as well prepared as they can be.”

Defender Craig Halkett, meanwhile, admits he is keen to make up for lost time as he targets a first outing since injuring his knee against St Mirren in September when Hearts travel to Rangers.

Halkett, who had been on the breakthrough of earning a maiden Scotland call-up before his set-back, said: “This was the one I was aiming for when I first got injured seven weeks ago.

“It was a really difficult one. The Scotland squads were coming up and the semi-final. 

“That’s why you come to a club like Hearts, to play in semis and finals. 

“The Scotland situation was uncertain about the defenders who were going to be in the squad so I think there might have been a chance I could have been involved.

“It’s been a long time out so I’m just delighted to be back.”

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