Hartson not cowed by all the bully talk

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The Independent Football

Some 250,000 people packed into the centre of Edinburgh last night to witness a Hogmanay party that had a 22ft-high flaming Catalan bull - wicker not livestock - as the star of the torchlight procession. Today, Scottish football welcomes in the new year in the same city with an encounter which will be equally combustible.

The meeting of Hearts and Celtic in front of a sellout crowd at Tynecastle, and an audience of millions watching live on television, is certain to make sparks fly. The collision between Steven Pressley and John Hartson is always of the raging bull variety, but throw in the added importance of the League title and it becomes compelling viewing.

The Hearts captain spoke last week of displaying some extra muscle against the leaders, who are four points ahead, while Hartson simply replied that no one bullies his team. "When you play against Pressley and Andy Webster, it is always physical," said the Celtic forward. "They are two big, strong boys and we are going to have to stand up and be strong. I do not read too much into the bullying stuff. I cannot see that happening to people like Bobo Balde and myself.

"What they are probably saying is that they want to make it a cup tie and a top-of-the-table clash. That is as it should be. Everybody said Rangers would absolutely fly away with the League, so we have all been surprised. Also, no one predicted Hearts doing as well. However, this cannot be any kind of title decider, because we still have to go to Ibrox, and to Tynecastle again. We could go seven clear at the weekend, but if we lose those two it is back to a point. It is only a big psychological blow until the next game.

"Hearts will not want the gap to grow, they will want to pull it back to a point. It is a massive game but we are not going to blow them out of the water. Football does not work like that."

While Rudi Skacel's 15 goals this term have captured the headlines in Hearts' title bid, it is the defence - containing three Scotland internationals - which has underpinned the challenge, conceding just 13, the meanest record in the SPL. "We are proud of that and proud of the fact we have lost just two goals at Tynecastle in the League this season," said Pressley.

It took a dressing room heart-to-heart between Graham Rix and his players a few weeks ago to iron out a few problems with the new manager's ideas that formed the backdrop to a run of just six points from 15. "For 14 or 15 games we have played probably the best football I have been involved in at this club," Pressley said. "We are delighted to have got back on track and have set ourselves up nicely for the game against Celtic."