Robbie Neilson hails experienced Hearts duo ahead of Celtic clash

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ONE was a forgotten man at Celtic.

The other was well on his way to becoming one at Hearts.

However, Tynecastle boss Robbie Neilson is adamant Craig Gordon and Christophe Berra will be pivotal in their bid to bring the Scottish Cup back to Gorgie.

Hearts goalkeeper Craig Gordon | Hearts news
Gordon will be aiming to keep his place in the Scotland squad until next summer

Gordon, 37, has been imperious since returning to his boyhood club, notably rolling back the years with a man of the match showing against Hibernian in the semi-final, capped by a staggering stop to deny Kevin Nisbet.

His form landed him a recall to the international set-up, notching his 55th Scotland cap in the 1-0 Nations League defeat in Slovakia last month.

Gordon appears to have lost none of the agility, reflexes or confidence which saw him claim 12 major honours in six years at Celtic – before he was latterly frozen out and allowed to leave with minimal fanfare during the summer.

“Craig made a big decision to leave Celtic and come to ourselves in the Championship,” said Neilson. “The first thing was to try and play week-in, week-out and try to get himself in the Scotland squad.

“He’s managed to do that.

“Then to get to get an opportunity to play in a cup final against the guys who have just let you go? That’s a big motivation for him.

“So we need to help him make sure he gets a result.”

Given Celtic have recently turned to 22-year-old Conor Hazard ahead of underperforming £4 million capture, Vasilias Barkas, and Scott Bain, it could be posited that allowing Gordon to depart was an ill-judged move.

“Well, thankfully we’ve got him,” smiled Neilson, when that notion was put to him.

“He will be a big part of the game on Sunday. As a back-four there is nothing better than having a guy like that behind you.

“He is very vocal and he organises. If he is shouting for it, he is going to come and claim it. The defence has done very well this season and he has been one of the key aspects of that.”

Gordon’s renaissance was predictable. After all, there was never any doubt regarding his quality and the sole reason he is plying his trade in the Championship is due to an emotional attachment to Hearts. His ability merits a higher division.

Hearts defender Christophe Berra | Hearts news
Hearts defender Christophe Berra is back in the frame

Berra’s return to the Hearts side and impressive form, however, is a more impressive revival.

The former Jambos captain – stripped of the armband by ex-manager Daniel Stendel – appeared to be on his way out of the club when the German coach made it clear he was surplus to requirements.

A loan spell at Dundee followed in the second half of last season, helping the Dee to five clean sheets in his six appearances, but even when Stendel exited there was no certainty Berra would ever play for Hearts again.

However, the appointment of his old manager and team-mate Neilson assuaged those fears and he is again a fixture alongside Craig Halkett in the centre of defence.

“Christophe got pushed aside and it hurt him,” said Neilson candidly.

“He came back in really good condition and, although he had a wee injury at the start of pre-season, he has managed to get back in the team and I couldn’t be more happy for him.

“Christophe’s a very good player if you play the way we’re playing him just now – where he is physical, strong, wins his headers, he is organised.

“He shows his qualities. And his qualities for me are that he is a leader and a very good defender.”

Hearts, meanwhile, announced yesterday that their players will sport the number 26 on their shorts against Celtic in honour of the late Marius Zaliukas.

A wreath placed outside Tynecastle following Marius Zaliukas' passing | Hearts news
A wreath placed outside Tynecastle following Marius Zaliukas’ passing

The former Jambos captain passed away at the age of 36 following a brave battle with Motor Neurone Disease, with the news breaking during the semi-final victory against Hibs.

Zaliukas wore the armband when the capital club last lifted the famous old trophy 2012 – and hopes to be able to dedicate a cathartic triumph to his ex-teammate.

“I think it’s a really important gesture,” added Neilson. “Marius was a massive part of the club, I knew him very well and he lifted the cup in 2012.

“What happened to him in the last couple of years is devastating for everyone and this is a little bit of a tribute. Hopefully, we can win it for him.”