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Robbie Neilson confident Hearts will find spark before Europa League kicks off

Celtic v Heart of Midlothian – cinch Premiership – Celtic Park
(Image credit: Steve Welsh)

Robbie Neilson is confident beleaguered Hearts can spark back into life in time for the beginning of their Europa Conference League campaign this Thursday.

The Jambos have lost five of their last six games in all competitions, with a combination of a heavy fixture load and a string of injuries to key men appearing to take a toll.

However, Neilson believes his team will benefit from having a slightly longer period to recover and prepare for their opening Conference League group game at home to Istanbul Basaksehir.

Asked if it would be hard to rouse the Jambos for the visit of the Turks after suffering back-to-back losses against Kilmarnock and Livingston, the manager said: “No, there will be 20,000 fans there and it’s European football.

“The most important thing for us is getting energy back in the group. We have five days to prepare now. Over the last week or two it’s been relentless, now we have a wee bit of a break before the next match.”

Although deflated by his team’s displays in their last two matches, Neilson is heartened by the possibility that key defender Craig Halkett will be back after missing the last five matches with the hamstring that forced him off in the first leg of the Europa League play-off defeat by FC Zurich.

“He was touch and go for Livingston,” said Neilson. “The original injury is okay, he just had a wee spasm. He should be back for Thursday and that will be a big positive.”

Livingston manager David Martindale is delighted to see Cristian Montano belatedly starting to flourish in the cinch Premiership.

The 30-year-old Colombian arrived at the Tony Macaroni Arena last summer from Port Vale but struggled for consistency in his first season.

However, Martindale is heartened by the way the left-back – who scored the winner against Hearts – has performed so far in this campaign.

“I expected that level from him last year,” said the manager. “But when he came up I wasn’t sure he was a left-back.

“He did quite well as a left-winger and he told me he would rather play higher up the park.

“It took him 12 months to adjust to the style of football, the intensity, the game loads.

“He has really kicked on this year but that’s the player I expected six to 12 weeks into the season last year.

“It’s just unfortunate I had to pay his wages for 12 months! But he has definitely been one of our best players this season.

“I’m delighted with him and I finally feel I’ve got the player I recruited last year.”

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