Extra training work for Hearts as they prepare for trip to miserly Morton
Morton’s defence has been drilled rigorously since manager David Hopkin arrived 18 months ago. Hearts are next to try breaking it down.
Training sessions at Riccarton this week have involved extra focus on finishing in anticipation of a resilient opponent at Cappielow Park on Saturday. Morton have lost just two goals in five league games there to date this season.
Hearts are visiting competitively for the first time since Boxing Day 1987. The score that afternoon was 0-0 and creative flair will be vital if they are to prise open Hopkin’s defiant rearguard.
His Livingston team enjoyed back-to-back promotions thanks to a five-man defence and a mean, aggressive streak. Morton are structured in a similar fashion.
After last week’s 1-0 Betfred Cup defeat at Alloa, Hearts have quietly worked on how to pick apart rigid opponents and score thereafter. Manager Robbie Neilson is familiar with the challenge in Greenock having drawn 1-1 and lost 1-0 there with Dundee United last season.
“It's been a while, I didn't realise how long it's been [since Hearts played at Morton],” he said. “I've been there a few times in the last couple of years so it’s always tough. The surface makes it difficult and it's quite compact as well.
“They set up quite defensively and it's up to the opposition to break them down. They try and hit you with set plays and counter attacks. We know we'll get quite a bit of possession. It's up to us to make sure we have the bit of quality in the final moment to get the goal.”
Hearts’ training this week has been influened by that requirement. “It's just been about getting the confidence back and putting the ball in the back of the net,” added Neilson.
“We were very disappointed with the result last week but the general play, getting into good areas and getting opportunities was good.
“We just didn't get that final moment so, when you go into a week like this, we know we'll have chances again if we play the way we did last week. It's just about putting it in the net now.
“It's part of football. You can talk about doing this and doing that but at the end of the day it's about getting opportunities for the team. We have to finish those opportunities as well.
“You have days when it just doesn't happen and we get annoyed about it. We have to accept it and make sure we work on it, like we have done this week, to try and rectify it.
“We spend a lot of time on it generally. We spread our week – we do a bit of defensive work, we do a bit of attacking work and split into groups and do different things.
“We'll continue to do what we’re doing. We had opportunities at Alloa and could have been sitting 3-0 or 4-0 up at half-time. Then we wouldn’t be having the conversations during the week.
“You just get on the training field, get shots at goal, getting into different areas and finishing. It'll come. We've had a few good games this season.
“We played Alloa on the Tuesday night and scored three goals so the finishing is there. But Saturday is another day and another chance to show what we can do.”
Problem won’t go away
The problem of defensively-solid opponents isn’t going to disappear for Hearts. They encountered it at Arbroath and Dunfermline before the surprise cup exit at Alloa.
Neilson knows they must conjure their own brand of magic on a weekly basis to finish top of the Championship table.
“That’s the way it’s going to be this season. When you’re one of the favourites for the league, teams will sit in and look to take a point at the very least,” he explained.
“We have to get players into positions that we can break teams down and to be fair we’ve done that this season. It’s just been a couple of games that we’ve lacked the final finish.”
The return of on-loan Preston North End winger Josh Ginnelly would be a significant help in terms of creativity. He is back sprinting but hasn’t joined in full training since injuring his thigh at Arbroath six weeks ago.
Hearts hope Ginnelly will be fit enough to take a place among the substitutes in Greenock but a decision has not yet been made on that front.
Defender Craig Halkett will be available after a back spasm forced him to pull out of the team shortly before kick-off last week. He has been monitored along with a number of others.
“Halkett will be available, I’m hoping to get Ginnelly for the bench,” said Neilson. “He has been running, he has not taken part in full training, he did some sprints and came through it okay.
“We’re desperate to get him back in, we’re just a bit wary that it was a thigh injury. You can get away with a hamstring or a calf but with a thigh you have to be careful.
“It’s about trying to fine tune everyone for every game, making sure we have the best opportunity to go and win that game and not rushing people either.
“You look at the opposition you're going to play and do a bit of work towards it. We're looking forward to the game. It's back on grass again which is great for us and great for a number of our players who prefer to play on it.”