Steven Gerrard has labelled Hearts as “genuine” challengers for the Premiership title this season as he seeks to inflict a first defeat of the campaign on the league leaders at Ibrox tomorrow.
Rangers manager Gerrard believes the real shape of the title race will not emerge until the first round of fixtures between the 12 top-flight clubs have been completed.
But having seen pacesetters Hearts already open up an eight-point gap between themselves and his own team after the first seven games of the season, Gerrard has no hesitation in regarding Craig Levein’s squad as credible contenders for the domestic crown.
“Right now, as we stand, of course they are genuine title challengers,” said Gerrard. “They are eight points ahead of us, so we can’t dismiss Hearts and say they are not title contenders. Definitely not.
“I’ve got respect for all the teams in this league, they all come with different styles and different strengths. So we won’t dismiss anyone. But it’s still early days. In my 15 years or so playing down in the English Premier League, a lot of managers said you don’t really look at the league table until you are around 10-12 games in. At the same time, though, Hearts are the team to catch.
“The league table doesn’t lie and we certainly need to respect Hearts. Craig’s team have done ever so well.
“They are the team to chase right now. They have been very consistent. I watched them last week against St Johnstone and they were very good. They played some really good stuff.
“They have good individuals within the team who can hurt you. We believe their main man up front, Uche Ikpeazu, will be back from injury for them as well on Sunday, so he comes with a different threat to the team I watched last week.
“They’ve got good players and are a good team. They deserve to be where they are. We need to take maximum points off them to try to bring them closer to us.”
Gerrard’s previous experience of facing Hearts came in 2012 when he was a member of the Liverpool side who won a Europa League play-off round tie 2-1 on aggregate. He missed the first leg at Tynecastle, which Liverpool won 1-0, but played in the return fixture at Anfield when a late goal by Luis Suarez settled the outcome after David Templeton had scored for Hearts.
“My memory of it isn’t the best but I do remember they were tough games,” said Gerrard. “I didn’t play at Tynecastle, I watched it on TV, but it was very competitive as was the return at Anfield.
“I’m looking forward to the challenge posed by Hearts, not just on Sunday but throughout the season. I think they will remain very competitive.”