Craig Fowler offers eight reasons why Sunday’s Ladbrokes Premiership game between Hearts and Aberdeen, live on Sky at 2.15pm, is a must-watch.
It's a shame Hearts have lost their last two matches because having both sides sitting top of the table would have had the nation buzzing in anticipation. As it stands, it's still a mouth-watering clash. Aberdeen are looking to keep up their 100% record and win another high-pressure match, showing the rest of the country the title challenge is for real. Hearts, meanwhile, will be desperate to get back to winning ways, especially with an unenviable trip to Celtic Park the following week.
Hearts and Aberdeen fans have an under-rated rivalry going, and have done for years. While it may not reach the same heightened tension as an Edinburgh derby or a meeting with either of the Old Firm, there is argument over who is Scotland's biggest club outside of Glasgow. Aberdeen fans can point to a more crowded trophy cabinet, including a European triumph, while Hearts have had greater success over the last 20 years, and a consistently higher home crowd over that time. Aberdeen's ascension to the role of title challengers, a movement which started when Hearts were out of the top flight, has only heightened such feelings.
The Hearts attack
For the Hearts support, the most galling aspect of last week's 2-0 defeat in Inverness was the inability to register a single shot on target. It was so unexpected. This was a team that, coming into the match, had scored at least two goals in every game to start the season. It's more than likely that will turn out to be a blip, a bad day at the office, rather than any indication of weakness from the Hearts front four. In Juanma, Osman Sow, Billy King, Jamie Walker, Sam Nicholson and Gavin Reilly, all players who've scored already this season, they have a plethora of attacking talent to choose from, with new signing Danny Swanson also thrown into the mix. Given that the match is at Tynecastle, with the Hearts crowd giving a raucous backing, this could prove to be an even sterner test for the Dons backline than last weekend's meeting with the champions.
The Aberdeen defence
Two goals. That's all Derek McInnes' side have conceded so far this league season. What's impressive about the statistic is that they don't even have a settled rearguard. Through choice, Aberdeen have moved Graeme Shinnie in and out of defence, used a combination of Andrew Considine, Paul Quinn and Ash Taylor at centre-back (with Mark Reynolds still to come back from injury), and even tried out a back three on occasion. It's a testament to the sheer ability of these players, and the sense of unity in the Dons squad, that this isn't a problem. In fact, quite the opposite, it's a strength. Not many teams, if any, will keep a clean sheet at Tynecastle this season. Aberdeen have a chance to be one of them.
Adam Rooney and Kenny McLean
The pair are responsible for eight of Aberdeen's 12 league goals this season, while McLean has also chipped in with three goals on the continent. The midfielder has always been a goal threat, but he's now consistently finding chances inside the penalty area as he makes those late runs from midfield, while Rooney, well, he's just continued to be the terrific goalscorer that he's always been throughout his career in Scotland. If McInnes goes with a similar team to the one that defeated Celtic, it will likely be McLean supporting Rooney as the side's No 10. It will be a tough test for Hearts, who will likely welcome back Blazej Augustyn and station Igor Rossi at left-back to cover for the suspended Juwon Oshaniwa. It's a defence that has only played together once before, in the 4-3 victory over St Johnstone on the opening weekend, so this will be a stern test.
The playmaking attacker has transitioned seamlessly to the top flight after a break-out season in Hearts' Scottish Championship title-winning campaign. Pacey, direct, great skill and a stinging shot make Walker a terrific threat in the final third. A knock stopped him from starting against Inverness, but being forced to watch on from the sidelines will mean he will be raring to go at Aberdeen right from kick-off. Neilson will likely play him behind Juanma in attack, but he will have freedom to roam and switch with other members of the supporting triumvirate in Hearts' 4-2-3-1.
Aberdeen's poor record at Tynecastle
Form would point to the visitors winning this match, but impressive Aberdeen sides from the not-so-distant past have come to Tynecastle to face weaker Hearts teams and lost. In 2013/14, the season Hearts were relegated and Aberdeen finished third, they met three times in the league. Hearts took seven points from the three matches, including a gutsy 1-1 midweek draw which ensured the team wouldn't be demoted in front of their own fans. And the poor record doesn't just cover that particular season. The Dons have won only once in their last 11 trips to Gorgie.
Ask Scottish football supporters and players what their favourite away ground is, and most of the time Tynecastle is mentioned. The stands are steep, meaning even supporters in the back row feel like they're right on top of the action. Aside from the deafening noise produced by the home fans, Aberdeen's away support is always vocal, meaning Sunday's match should have an incredible atmosphere. If you can't make it and are forced to watch it at home, turn the volume up to 11, sit back and enjoy.