Hearts star Uche Ikpeazu misses Ibrox trip but should be fit for derby

Trying to extract any kind of positive from the fact that he and his team will travel to Ibrox tonight without the services of Uche Ikpeazu, Hearts boss Craig Levein has consoled himself with the fact that at least the imposing striker will be fresh for this weekend’s derby.

Uche Ikpeazu celebrates his goal against Aberdeen: Picture: SNS
Uche Ikpeazu celebrates his goal against Aberdeen: Picture: SNS

But, in the meantime he has had to try to plot a different way to victory over Rangers, as the Gorgie players attempt to close the gap on the teams above them minus the man who netted the winner against Aberdeen before leaving the pitch with a nasty head knock.

“‘We’ve followed all the protocols and he won’t make the Rangers game but he should be okay for Saturday. There’s a baseline test he has to pass within 24 hours, I know that much. He passed that with flying colours. There are some physical tests this week, as well. He’s got to pass those. But he’s fine.”

Sign up to our Football newsletter

Sign up to our Football newsletter

But even going into one game without Ikpeazu poses a quandary as Levein weighs up whether the likes of David Vanecek can fill the void or if they have to tinker their gameplan.

“He [Ikpeazu] does affect the game for us,” said Levein. “And I keep bleating on about this but, once people accept that it’s not a free-kick to be stronger than everybody else, he will be even better for us.

“I think, given some of the treatment he got at the weekend, for me, he showed a great mentality not to be provoked, get involved and get himself sent off. Because it would have been so easy.

“I would have been struggling to keep myself in check, with some of the stuff that was going on. So all credit to him. He’s managed to stay calm throughout it all and, most importantly, get the goal that wins the game.”

Second-placed Rangers are ten points ahead of the Tynecastle side, who are currently focused on pegging back third and fourth-placed Kilmarnock and Aberdeen.

But with players like Ikpeazu, Michael Smith and Steven Naismith still to return from injury, Levein believes there is more to come from his squad as they try to move up the Premiership standings.

Described as a big, physical team by Rangers manager Steven Gerrard, Levein says he has no interest in other people’s opinions of his side, saying that collecting three points in every game they go into is his primary concern.

“That doesn’t bother me in the slightest. Not in the slightest. We are what we are,” said Levein. “People can look at us and make a judgment. But, for me, it’s not important, as long as we perform to a certain level and give ourselves a chance of winning. How you win isn’t important, sometimes.

“We want to try to win every game from now on. There’s 21 points to play for.”

Levein is already building for next season and beyond and is delighted to have signed up Livingston’s Craig Halkett on a pre-contract deal. “He’s quick, aggressive, good on the ball and I feel there is an awful lot more to come from him,” Levein said of the defender he believes could follow the likes of Christophe Berra and John Souttar and graduate into the Scotland team one day. “I really understand that position because I played there all my days and, while he’s not the same as John, he’s got some very similar qualities and I think he’ll be a brilliant signing.

“I watched a couple of their matches early on in the season and was immediately impressed by him. When the opportunity arose to do something with a pre-contract, it was a no-brainer. I would argue he has been as potent a centre-back at scoring from corner kicks that there is in the league, so not only will he help us in a defensive sense, he has some goals in him which is good for next season.”