Hearts manager Craig Levein is hopeful that star men Christophe Berra and Steven Naismith could be back in the starting ranks sooner than anticipated and he has urged the rest of the squad to stay in the hunt until then.
Still top of the Premiership table, a derby draw and a defeat to Celtic last week has eroded much of their lead but victory over Kilmarnock at Tynecastle tomorrow would allow them to head into the latest international break in a positive position.
“It would be good to still be at the top and a win on Saturday guarantees that,” said Levein, “although the Kilmarnock game will be difficult, they’re around about the same area in the table as ourselves and they’re a fairly robust team, difficult to beat. Stevie [Clarke, the Rugby Park manager] has done a brilliant job there. But it’s not Celtic away and I feel like we have a great chance of getting three points.”
In the wake of some significant injuries, it would be a notable achievement for the club that made up the numbers in the top six last term.
In a bright start to the season, they won every one of their first five league fixtures and progressed to the last four of the League Cup. But they have dropped points in four of their next seven Premiership games and were also dispatched from the knockout competition at the semi-final stage. However, with Berra’s rehabilitation ahead of plan and Naismith looking at a six-week recovery target rather than the initial eight, both players are expected to be back in the team within the month.
“We’re going through a difficult period because we’re missing a lot of good players,” said the Tynecastle boss. “No matter how good our squad is, we don’t have the same level of quality underneath those we’re missing.
“It’s natural there is some level of drop-off. The key for me is to keep our levels high enough that we can still win matches and keep us in contention at the top of the league, and when the players come back into the team we will receive a boost.
“If we can keep winning games and putting points on the board, we’re fine. We just need to hang in there until we get them all back.
“Christophe is doing really well, he has pencilled in that Rangers game – he must be picking the team for that one,” joked his gaffer. “I don’t know if that’s doable but he seems to be very positive.”
With the Ibrox side heading to Gorgie on 2 December, that could be in two games’ time.
“He has been outside doing a lot of work, running and stuff, and is definitely improving. There has been a big leap forward. We were told six to eight weeks with Naisy but I’m hoping it’s nearer the six so we can get him back for at least three or four matches before the break as well.”
That could see him back in contention ahead of the trip to Pittodrie and up to match speed by the time they next take on city rivals Hibs.
“I don’t think John [Souttar] or Uche [Ikpeazu] will be ready before the winter break. But it will be a boost having Christophe and Naisy back. I’m hoping that’s us turned the corner with that exasperating spell of people going out for any length of time with some weird injuries.”
In the meantime, Levein is pleased with the way the squad has reacted to any setbacks and, with Jimmy Dunne and Callumn Morrison the latest to be called up for international duty, he believes he has players who are capable of holding the fort and offering the star names competition when they do return.
“Steven Naismith’s absence will be felt in every match but we come into a run of fixtures that are not quite as tough as those we faced recently. We’ve got Steven MacLean back and Craig Wighton and Sean Clare are getting up to speed so I’m not wondering what on earth I’m going to do.”