The 0-0 scoreline at Ross County reduced the gap between the Premiership’s bottom club and second-bottom Hamilton to four points. Hearts are also unbeaten in three games but remain hamstrung by the paucity of their attacking threat.
They failed to register a shot on target in the Highlands and are now ten games without a league victory. Their last away league win outside Edinburgh was 322 days ago against Dundee at Dens Park. The improvement since manager Daniel Stendel took charge in December has been notable and encouraging, but his team still need more creativity and ruthlessness up front. Hence the pursuit of the Burton Albion forward Liam Boyce.
A visit by Rangers will test the Hearts defence, which has not conceded from open play in the last three fixtures against Aberdeen, Airdrie and County. Stendel’s side must also prise open their opponents and find a creative spark if they want to cause an upset.
“Our play in the final third cost us the three points,” said captain Steven Naismith in reference to the midweek assignment in the Highlands. “We got in good situations, but we never tested the goalie enough. Overall, it was a much more solid, much more offensive performance which is what we want to be doing.
“The changing room has got a better feel about it. After that game, we are coming in a bit disappointed because of the situations we had. It is turning. We gain a point on the ones above us, but we still have a lot of work to do. It is a small step, but it’s a good one.
“We had them [County] pinned back for the majority of the end of the game. We just needed that final bit of quality, better decision-making. We had a few shots from outside the box, a few attempted hard crosses when we didn’t need to do that. They were struggling, kicking the ball out for throw-ins, goal kicks and corner kicks. That’s where we let them off the hook by giving them a goal kick or a free-kick. That’s the wee bit that was missing.”
Stendel certainly favours a bold approach and that may serve him well against a Rangers defence which can look vulnerable under pressure. Hearts finished against Ross County with five forwards on the field – Naismith, Uche Ikpeazu, Euan Henderson, Conor Washington and Jamie Walker. The improving morale nurtures belief that they can beat Steven Gerrard’s side.
“It’s about getting points, no matter who you play. We’ll be going into Sunday expecting and thinking we can get some points,” said Naismith. “It’s not a case of picking and choosing who you take points from. In the past, every team has taken points off us. We just need to keep building as a group, playing more fluent football like the manager wants and being in the positions he wants. That’s what got us chances on Wednesday.
“A lot of the build-up play was maybe unnoticed but it definitely was progress.
“Every manager is different. They have the things they want and don’t want. The break was good for us because the boys were in the habits of the previous manager and a lot of things are different. It does take time but we have shown in the last three games that we are pushing forward. We feel more solid and secure as a unit and we have more in attack. We’ve got four or five bodies in the box for each attack, which will bear fruit later on.”
Hearts are in the fight of their lives in the quest for top-flight survival. Victories, not draws, are what will get them out of the mire. Stendel wants a goalscorer as soon as possible after the Kosovan international winger Donis Avdijaj became his first signing. The relegation zone is intensely competitive and goals are vital.
“The league is very tough and results show that,” added Naismith. “In a lot of games, fans and pundits wouldn’t give a team a chance, but they come out with points at the end. We’re in this mess because we never picked up enough points at the start of the season. We’ve now got to rectify that and the last three games gives us positive feelings about that.
“There is a bit of disappointment from Wednesday because we felt we had good opportunities to make the goalie work and take our chances. But you do go in and look at all the results. We have gained a point, which is a small step.”
Avdijaj will hope to showcase his ability against Rangers after a quiet debut at Ross County. “He has only been in for a day and it might have been a big ask for him to come in and do everything well,” said Naismith. “He showed good glimpses of technical ability and good awareness. It’s not always about what you can do with the ball at your feet. It’s about finding spaces and he did that. He maybe had a bad touch every so often which shows he is not at his sharpest.”