Lawrence Shankland set for a Celtic Park first as Hearts try to extend unbeaten league run after European trip


Shankland’s only appearance at the Parkhead ground came during Covid lockdown for Dundee United. They suffered a 3-0 defeat in December 2020 in the eerie closed-doors atmosphere.

A boisterous Celtic support shouldn’t overly faze him. As Zurich ultras baited, booed and whistled behind their goal on Thursday in Switzerland, Shankland was the epitome of composure holding the ball after Adrian Guerrero fouled Nathaniel Atkinson inside the penalty area.

He calmly placed it on the spot and drove it unreservedly low into the net, silencing the locals as Hearts played out a 2-1 loss in their Europa League play-off first leg.

“I think the linesman gave the penalty eventually. The ref said ‘no’ at first but the linesman has obviously seen something,” explained the forward. “I was just keen to grab the ball and it took a wee while. I just had to stay composed.

“The noise level lifted a fair bit because it was at the Zurich end. I was confident and managed to stay calm. I hit a good penalty and thankfully it went in. I’ve probably been in that situation before but probably not of that magnitude in an important game. As always, I was just delighted to see it hit the net.”

Should Shankland find himself placing the ball on the spot 12 yards out in front of a baying Celtic support tomorrow, he will be slightly surprised. The Zurich penalty gives him an idea of how to deal with such a scenario in any case.

“That will be good preparation if we get one there [at Celtic]. I doubt it, right enough,” he laughed. “The more practice you can get in those situations the better because then you can deal with that pressure.

Hearts manager Robbie Neilson with striker Lawrence Shankland.

“I’ve only played there once with Dundee United and it was during lockdown so the place was empty. We lost 3-0 in the end. I’ve always been in the lower leagues and then the place was empty when we went there in the Premiership. It will be good. I’m going there with a good team so hopefully we can make our mark.”

A result in Glasgow’s east end would help Hearts’ domestic aspirations considerably. Their last win away to Celtic was almost 13 years ago.

“That’s who we want to compete with and that’s who were above us in the table last year,” said Shankland. “The message is clear: We want to get up there and get closer to Celtic and Rangers. To do that, we need to give them a game when we go through to Glasgow.”

A striker in scoring form always helps. Shankland has three goals in four competitive Hearts appearances and five in five overall since completing a transfer from the Belgian club Beerschot.

“Long may it last,” he said. “I just want to keep getting into positions and hopefully the goals keep going in. I’m playing with good players and if they can find me in good areas then great. Thursday was a penalty but I’ll take them as they come.

“I felt good coming off and we all seemed to finish the game pretty strongly. Zurich had a couple of counter-attacks near the end and Craigy [Gordon] had two really good saves. I felt we were quite in control of the game at that point. That shows we have good fitness levels. We need it for Sunday and going into next Thursday.”

The unforgiving nature of European football combined with domestic expectation is about to properly dawn on Hearts. They face midweek and weekend games through to next month’s international break, with another frenetic period of fixtures waiting thereafter.

“We knew what we were entering into,” said Shankland. “We’ve known from the start of the season we would be facing this situation of playing midweek and weekends. Sunday is a big game going to Celtic Park and we will be ready. The recovery has started.

“My pre-season was a bit different. When I got here, the boys were working a bit more intensely. I’m starting to feel good now. That’s four games where I’ve played 90 minutes or close to it so I’m started to feel sharp again. It was always going to take a bit of time but I’m getting there.”

Manager Robbie Neilson stressed the need for full focus on Celtic. If Hearts intend to make European competitions a yearly thing, they must maintain consistent domestic form.

“It’s a cliché but it’s the bread and butter,” declared Neilson. “The league form last year got us into Europe and we need to do that again so we go to Parkhead and we need to be ready.

“We might make a couple of changes but not massive because we’ll try and win that game. Once we are through that we’ll try and focus on the home leg against Zurich next Thursday.

“We had already started preparing for Celtic. As a staff we know what we’re going to do. We’ve been there numerous times and know it’s going to be difficult.

“Our focus is totally on Celtic, we stayed overnight in Switzerland on Thursday, it’s about recovery and making sure we’re in as good a condition as possible. If you don’t bring 100 per cent then you’ll get turned over.

“Our objective this season is the same as last season. We spoke about it: ‘Can we go to Glasgow and win?’ It’s been a long time since we’ve done that and Sunday is an opportunity.

“There is no point in going there thinking: ‘Let’s put this game to bed then we can look forward to Thursday.’ We want to try and go there and win.”

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