“He’s fit and ready to go” – Robbie Neilson says new signing Beni Baningime could be eligible for his Hearts debut on Saturday

Robbie Neilson met the media ahead of Saturday’s opening day showdown with Celtic. Jamie McIntosh reports.

(Photo Credit – Mark Scates/SNS Group via Getty Images)

When the Scottish Premiership fixtures were announced last month, Hearts welcoming Celtic on their return to the top flight was a standout fixture. 

Whenever these two sides meet at Tynecastle, they always seem to produce fireworks in what is always a feisty affair. 

There is a lot of optimism that Hearts could cause some sort of a surprise against an out-of-sorts Celtic side, fresh off the back of a Champions League exit in Denmark against FC Midtjylland.

“The first game of the season is always important,” Neilson said.

“You want to start well and get three points on the board and move forward. We’ve got a home game; we want to win it and that’s our aim. We’ll have the flag going up before it and we’ve got 4,500 fans there so the atmosphere should be good, so we need to keep that atmosphere good, by being aggressive in our play.

“We think there’s areas that they’re [Celtic] very strong, but there’s also areas we can exploit and it’s up to us to try and exploit these areas.”

Celtic played 120 minutes of football in their extra time loss to Danish side Midtjylland, meaning fitness could play a big part in Saturday’s clash:

“We’ve had four competitive games now and about nine of our players have played them all, so they should almost be at their top-level fitness wise. We see this as a good opportunity, but one in which we’ll need to bang on in if we’re to get a result. Celtic will be coming to Tynecastle with 4,500 fans inside, so we feel that we’ve got a chance.”

When asked about Celtic’s performance in Denmark, Neilson said: 

“If Forrest scored and they go 2-0 up it’s a different story, but they go up and score 30 seconds later and it changes it. They’ll be disappointed with the result, but they’ve still got fantastic players in the team – that front four or five, they’re guys we need to be very wary of. We need to figure out ways to stop them, however we think there’s areas that we can exploit them as well. 

“You can see what they’re [Celtic] trying to do in the team. You could see that in Neil’s team last year too, but now a new manager has come in and they start changing the way they play. At the top end of the pitch, I’d say it’s largely the same as it’s been for the last four or five years, because they’ve got similar personnel, it’s more the build at the back where they’re a wee bit different.”

Hearts have struggled to get players in this window, but a permanent deal for Everton midfielder Beni Baningime was confirmed yesterday.

“It’s a slow market everywhere”, Neilson explained. “There’s not a lot of movement, whether it’s down south or up here. We’ve had a lot of players put in, but players who we didn’t think really think improved us a team. We’ve waited and waited and now we’ve got Beni in, someone who’s going to add a lot to the squad.

“Beni has got great experience, he’s only 22, but he’s played six games in the Premiership and 12 games all in for them (Everton), so it’s great for us to get a player in that’s done that. He’s got good energy and a good work ethic. Playing in that midfield position, he’s a ball winner and can play forward as well. I think he brings a lot of attributes that we need for our shape.

“He’s a player that got shown to us a few weeks ago and we had a look at him then, but he still had a year left at Everton, so there were some issues with that working back and forward, so it’s still to get nailed down, but it’ll be permanent if it goes through.” 

“He trained today, and he was training with the first team until they went to Florida, so he’s fit and ready to go, it’s just a decision on whether we put him in or not.

“He’s at the stage of his career where he needs to play games regularly. He burst on to the scene when he was a bit younger and then hasn’t played as much as he’d have liked. We see it as an opportunity to get a good player, but also a chance to develop him and he sees it as a chance to get himself back playing regularly, so it fits everybody.

“I spoke to a number of people down at Everton and also his loan clubs to get a reference on him and they all spoke very highly of him. It’s difficult to take the next step and play regularly in England, but we’re giving him the opportunity to come and play regularly at a huge club.”

Hearts will welcome John Souttar back to the matchday squad, after he was absent against Inverness Caledonian Thistle and the match winner, Jamie Walker, is also in contention to start.

“John Souttar is back in. Jamie Walker did a bit of training today too, so we’ll see how he is tomorrow and then obviously we’ve got Beni coming in. Hopefully we can get things tied up and get him in the squad for the weekend, so we’re looking good, but I still think we need to add more, I’ve said that all along.”

Dundee and Hearts’ return to the top tier of Scottish football brings the return of the Edinburgh and Dundee derbies to the fixture calendar and Neilson says he is expecting a competitive season ahead:

“It’s probably the best top flight there’s been for 10 or 15 years! All the so-called big teams are in it, so there’ll be some upsets, but I think it’ll be a tight league. At the end, I don’t think there’ll be much disparity between the majority of the teams, so I think if we can build a good squad we’ve got a chance of doing well.”

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