A few weeks ago, Hearts suddenly found themselves five points clear at the top of the Premiership.
A 1-0 win at Motherwell, courtesy of a controversial Steven Naismith goal, gave the Tynecastle side their fifth league win in a row. Coupled with dropped points by Celtic at St Mirren the night before, it was enough to propel them into a position they could have scarcely hoped for when the season began.
Fast forward a few weeks and Hearts have maintained that five point gap going into this weekend’s fixtures. Title challenge talk, which had come laced with sarcasm and knowing chuckles in the first few weeks, has started to take on a more serious tone of late.
Of course, there are caveats. These days, when anyone other than Celtic leads the division there are always caveats. The primary being that it’s still very early in the season; a promising lead can become a significant deficit before bonfire day rolls around. Just ask Aberdeen.
But there’s no doubt Hearts deserve their current lead and they go to Ibrox on Sunday knowing a win significantly increases their title credentials. It will be their hardest test yet.
Much like one of this week’s major cinematic releases, Rangers have evidenced a split personality so far this season. In Venom, down-at-luck journalist Eddie Brock finds himself transformed into the deadly alien symbiote of the film’s title. At it’s heart is a question over which personality is most dominant and it’s a battle that Steven Gerrard is also attempting to answer. Meek, cowed and unsure away from home, Rangers have been a different beast at Ibrox; dominant, dangerous and more than capable of flaying opponents.
Having won every home game this season in the league - and racking up nine goals in the last two, against Dundee and St Johnstone - they’ll be confident of re-asserting that aggressive personality on Sunday. A confident win against Rapid Vienna in midweek while have only strengthened that feeling.
For Hearts to win, they will need to shackle not only Alfredo Morelos, but the likes of Ryan Kent, Glenn Middleton and the ever-threatening full backs, James Tavernier and Borna Barasic. Hearts’ wins have been based on a steady rearguard, having conceded only three in the league all season, but Rangers pose threats at home that not even Celtic offered.
While Celtic were ponderous at Tynecastle in a 1-0 defeat, allowing Hearts time to find their shape, Rangers will attack with a discombobulating mix of speed and precision. Where Leigh Griffiths struggled to impose himself physically back in August, Morelos will relish the confrontation with John Souttar and Jimmy Dunne. The Columbian is in piercing form, his confidence flowing after a productive few months.
In midfield, Hearts’ impressive new signings Peter Haring and Olly Lee will need to show the same confidence and control they’ve exuded thus far. Rangers midfield has a surplus of threats, but they’re inconsistent and capable of being bypassed, as games against Celtic and Livingston have shown.
Sunday’s encounter is another chance, too, for Steven Naismith to shine. The 32-year-old striker, now playing in that role after last season’s ill-advised deployment in midfield, has been Craig Levein’s talisman this season. Not only scoring crucial goals like the one at Motherwell, but encouraging and managing teammates around him. He had begun to develop a relationship with Uche Ikpeazu in the opening weeks of the season and Levein will hope the imposing striker is back for Ibrox. He’s not played since that win at Fir Park, but he occupies defenders in the way no one else in the Hearts squad can, allowing those around him the space to make an impact.
Rangers defence has improved markedly this term and, crucially, have cut out so many of the cheap mistakes that cost them goals and points last campaign. Without the freebies, Hearts will need to fashion chances for themselves; a task made so much easier if Ikpeazu is in the team.
As Levein noted yesterday, Hearts have won games in different ways this season and they’ll need to adapt again at Ibrox, with Rangers posing a significantly different challenge to every other side they’ve faced. If the Hearts boss can find the right tactics, personnel and shape, then they may well leave Ibrox with something. If they do, the title challenge talk will rise a notch louder.