Celtic's players will be in the air tomorrow afternoon, bound for Seville and their Uefa Cup final with FC Porto. At roughly the same time, Hearts will be trying to launch their own European ambitions – and that could ground Rangers' title dreams.
Alex McLeish takes his team to Tynecastle Park knowing that they have to win their penultimate Scottish Premier League match to draw level with their Old Firm rivals at the top of the table.
While the talk is of a potential post-season play off between the Glasgow giants, the Rangers manager knows that fate may just have taken him into the wrong place at the wrong time.
Many Rangers fans are almost automatically assuming the points are wrapped up and are focusing on the final match at home to Dunfermline Athletic. However, McLeish is far too experienced to underestimate the threat of Hearts.
Craig Levein has moulded the Edinburgh club into an impressive side, despite the sale of his best asset, Antti Niemi, for £2m to Southampton earlier in the season. Hearts need three points to secure third place and qualify for the Uefa Cup. Not only that, but they inflicted a 2-1 defeat on Celtic at Tynecastle last month, which was more than Blackburn or Liverpool could do.
"Games don't come any bigger than this one," McLeish admitted. "It is a very important game for us, in many ways the most important, because it would allow us to peg back the points on Celtic."
The champions reclaimed the lead last Wednesday by defeating Dundee – who had allowed the match to be moved forward to aid Celtic's Uefa Cup final preparations – 6-2, to improve both their points and goals differential over their rivals. "I am not going to be detrimental to Hearts by talking about goal difference," McLeish said. "They beat Celtic at Tynecastle and will be feeling confident."
Mark de Vries epitomises Hearts' spirit. Even Celtic's rugged defence simply could not handle the 6ft 5in Dutch striker when they lost at Tynecastle and De Vries admits that his side have lost the inferiority complex they once had. "We have taken a lot of encouragement from the way we played against the Old Firm recently," he said. "We beat Celtic here and we went to Parkhead last week and gave them a tough game. When we went to Ibrox, we only lost by an own goal.
"We are playing like a side that can keep third place and get into the Uefa Cup and we now it is in our own hands. The pressure will be more on Rangers here than it will be on us."
McLeish also had to take time out yesterday to insist that the impending departure of his central defender, Lorenzo Amoruso, to Blackburn, would not affect the Italian's concentration. "He's an experienced player and those reports will not affect him."
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