Craig Levein believes tomorrow’s trip to Ibrox will be the acid test for his early league leaders as the irresistible force of Rangers’ home form meets the immovable object of Hearts’ record on the road.
The Hearts manager, who sent his No 2 Austin MacPhee to watch the Glasgow club’s Europa League win over Rapid Vienna on Thursday, has been impressed by Rangers’ home performances. Steven Gerrard’s men have won eight out of nine matches on their own patch this term, scoring 25 goals in the process and restoring the fear factor to their Govan base.
However, Levein is adamant his charges – defending a five-point lead at the top of the table – will approach the clash with no fear as they bring a 100 per cent record on their travels in the Premiership.
“Rangers are a totally different team at Ibrox and that makes it a very interesting proposition for us,” said Levein. “We have achieved a lot of different things this season and won matches in a lot of different ways, but going away from home to either of the two big clubs in Glasgow is always difficult.
“With Rangers’ home form, that makes it even more challenging. There’s an interesting dynamic to this game, with Rangers having performed so well at home – they have been exemplary – and our away form, for the first time in years, has been excellent too. I can’t wait to see how it pans out. I’m as fascinated as everyone else.
“I want to see how these guys do in this sort of game. It’s a chance to test ourselves and play with the confidence that should have been gained by virtue of the performances up until now. I’m really interested and excited.
“We’ve got players who have a hunger this year I don’t think we have had for a while and they see this Sunday as a challenge, an opportunity to show off their skills and show people as a team we can play well enough to win anywhere in this league.”
As Hearts seek to underline their credentials as shock title challengers, Steven Naismith is likely to be a key figure in familiar surroundings.
The 32-year-old, who won six major honours during five years at Ibrox, has been revitalised for club and country since returning to Gorgie for a second loan stint from Norwich, scoring ten goals in all competitions and emerging as a giant in the Hearts dressing room.
“I expect a lot from Steven every week, and he doesn’t let me down,” added Levein. “He’s a real character and a really genuine person, which helps in the dressing room. When Naisy gives you a bollocking for something, they know he’s right 99 times out of 100.
“So he carries a lot of authority and respect and he’s in a good place to be giving people help and advice. The more experience our players get the less likely they are to be fazed by anything, really.
“We have John Souttar stepping forward and playing international football now and the more often you play in big matches the easier it is to go to places like Ibrox.”
Naismith’s erstwhile strike-partner at Hearts, Kyle Lafferty, could return to the Rangers side tomorrow after sitting out the win over Rapid – the first time he has faced the Tynecastle side since completing his return to Glasgow.
Lafferty, who notched 20 goals for the men in maroon, made no secret of his desire to embark on a second stint with his boyhood side, while Hearts were ultimately satisfied with the £400,000 fee they banked.
“I am looking forward to seeing him, he’s a great character,” continued Levein. “I think he’ll play because [Alfredo] Morelos played on Thursday and I think they’ll go back to playing three up top. We know what to expect from Kyle so we’ll see how it goes.”
While Levein prepares for the challenge posed by Lafferty, the man who has ably filled the Northern Irishman’s boots in Gorgie, striker Uche Ikpeazu, who has become a big favourite among the Hearts faithful, is battling to recover from a foot injury.
“I am hopeful he can get a full training session in today but, if he doesn’t, then it’s highly unlikely he’ll be available for Rangers,” Levein said.
Jimmy Dunne will almost certainly start for Hearts and the defender revealed yesterday that, despite being a Manchester United fan, he used to have posters of Steven Gerrard on his wall. For Dunne, who is on loan from Burnley, the scale of a tantalising occasion is only magnified by the presence of Anfield icon Gerrard on the touchline.
“I don’t want to say it too much but there was probably a poster or two [of Gerrard] on my bedroom wall,” laughed Dunne. “I had to rip them off the wall when I went to Man United [as a youth player]!
“It’s usually just one or the other in Ireland. I grew up as a Manchester United supporter really but it could go either way. My mates are all either Man United or Liverpool.
“Having a manager like Gerrard in this league has brought a lot of attention from the press this season and it just makes the occasion all the better.”