Sergio confident new game plan starting to bear fruit at Hearts

IF Hearts play as well against Hibernian tomorrow as they did against Tottenham on Thursday night, they should win the Edinburgh derby at a canter. The Tynecastle team have yet to fire on all cylinders this season, having before this week looked their best against their weakest opponents – Paks in the Europa League and Aberdeen in the SPL. But over their past three games, manager Paulo Sergio believes they have improved steadily, and that the squad are beginning to carry out his game plan more consistently.

“I’m sure about that,” he said. “We are passing the ball better and not kicking the ball unaware, and we are defending well and working like a team. Everyone is running to recover the ball. That is team work and what we’re trying to do every day, and I’m happy with the improvements I’m seeing.

“True, if I had been here from the beginning of the season it would have been easier for me. It has been hard work since I arrived – we haven’t had time to sleep because the clock is ticking, the transfer window is closing, all at the same time. We’re doing our work and when you start seeing improvements then, sure, you should be happy. I’m always sure you can improve and I will never be happy with what we’re doing. I always want more. Perfection does not exist.

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“I don’t want to go into the derby on Sunday thinking it’s going to be easier because of what we did against Spurs. I hope the players will continue to improve in the next game.”

Last Sunday’s goalless draw at Kilmarnock was in essence a taster for the Spurs match, with Hearts keeping a more disciplined shape than in their previous outings. While acknowledging the part played by passion in derbies, Sergio says it is essential for his players to maintain the self-discipline shown at Rugby Park.

“The derby is a different game and nothing to do with anything that has gone before,” he said. “It’s an emotional game, but I want my players to be cold and focused. I played in a few derbies in Lisbon and across Portugal as a player, and in these type of matches there is always a big noise around you, but you must be focused on doing your own work and trying to win three points.”

While emphasising that the players are steadily coming to terms with the demands Sergio is making of them, Eggert Jonsson said that he and his team-mates also needed to be willing to battle to get the better of Hibs. “Since the new manager came in, he’s been introducing a new philosophy,” the Icelandic midfielder said. “We’ve been working on that in training and, I think, improving game by game. He likes us to play the ball and we’re all getting into the movement he wants. We’re gelling.

“Hibs is a derby, though, and sometimes in derbies you have to fight first, win the battle and then start playing. These games aren’t about style. It will be a battle all over the pitch. They are always hard.

“We have to make sure we get the right mix between the battle and the good play, the way the coach wants us to play, the passing and movement because we need the three points.”

According to Sergio, everyone who played at White Hart Lane is in with a chance of playing tomorrow. The relative success of the team he chose on Thursday will not completely determine his selection, but it has surely taken him significantly closer to settling on his first-choice team.

In the back four, the only remaining issue is probably whether Ryan McGowan or Jamie Hamill should play at right-back, with the other three jerseys going to Andy Webster, Marius Zaliukas and Danny Grainger. Adrian Mrowiec is becoming the cornerstone of the team in the holding midfield role, while Scott Robinson must be close to ousting Ian Black from the attacking midfield slot. Jonsson, who can also play at right-back, could join Mrowiec as a second defensive midfielder when the situation required.

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The two main questions which Sergio has yet to answer concern the wingers and strikers. When should he play two out-and-out wingers (not as often as he has been doing, is the short answer to that), and who should he play up front? Once he decides on his solution to those problems, the manager should have a team more than capable of claiming third place. Even as things stand, those problems of Sergio’s are dwarfed by the ones Colin Calderwood has to deal with, which is why Hearts will begin tomorrow’s game as strong favourites.