Hearts aiming to end eight-year wait for league win at St Johnstone
Overlooking the importance of Hearts' trip to Perth would be easy amid the fallout from Sunday's match at Tynecastle Park.
Rangers’ 2-1 victory created all sorts of controversy, headlines and hysteria, but the Edinburgh club travel to McDiarmid Park tonight looking for a first league win there since November 2010.
They are understandably eager to put that statistic to bed and, in the process, end a recent run of six games without victory. St Johnstone are at the opposite end of the footballing form spectrum with five wins and a draw in their last six fixtures. Notably, Tommy Wright’s team haven’t conceded a solitary goal during that sequence.
“They’ve hit a bit of form,” admitted Craig Levein, the Hearts manager who has spent the last three days at the epicentre of a dispute over officials following that Rangers game. “They struggled at the start of the season but they’ve got six games with clean sheets.
“I saw they’ve lost Drey Wright actually, who’s been good for them, which will mean that Tommy will need to change something for tonight. They’re on a good run of form and obviously it’s a difficult place to go and get points, but I took some encouragement from our game on Sunday. I think we improved. We changed the shape and tried to get more people higher up the park and not just leave everything to Steven MacLean, who I brought here to maybe play 15 games this season. All credit to him, he’s played however many already.”
The 36-year-old will indeed make his 20th appearance of the campaign this evening at his old place of work. Injuries to fellow strikers Uche Ikpeazu and Steven Naismith have seen MacLean used far more often than was originally planned when he left St Johnstone for Hearts during the summer. He is again expected to lead the visitors’ attack.
Levein is not likely to alter his starting line-up greatly from Sunday. As revealed in yesterday’s Evening News, he is toying with the idea of resting Christophe Berra to protect the captain. Berra made his first appearance in four months at the weekend and another demanding fixture three days later may be seen as a risk. Levein is content to let the 33-year-old make the final call. “I don’t know yet. The second day after the game is always the most dangerous one. Obviously with Jimmy Dunne being out for six weeks then the temptation is to put him back on the field again but I need to see. He’ll make that decision.”
Dunne’s ankle problem is simply the latest in an unfortunate injury saga which has seen Hearts robbed of key player after key player this season, including Berra, Ikpeazu, Naismith, John Souttar and now Dunne. Levein still hopes to extend the Burnley defender’s stay at Tynecastle beyond January, when his existing loan agreement is due to end.
“He’s been amazing,” exclaimed the manager. “I really want to keep him if I can but he’s done that well I wouldn’t be surprised if they [Burnley] kept him or tried to put him to the Championship or something like that. But I want him back. If we’ve got him, Christophe and John Souttar then I think we’ve got a really strong back line.”
It remains to be seen if there is a change in the Hearts midfield. Olly Lee was a regular in the team earlier in the season but hasn’t started any of the last two games and could find himself recalled in Perth.
Oliver Bozanic, having been reinstated to the midfield line-up against Rangers, is desperate to keep his place. He is another summer arrival but is already well versed with the difficulties McDiarmid Park has posed for previous Hearts teams down the years.
“It hasn’t really been discussed. Obviously I know about the record but this is a completely different team,” stressed the dynamic Australian. “We have a focus to go there and get the job done. The record isn’t something we will be thinking about. Right now, we need to take one game at a time, home or away. We have to focus on what we need to do to get that result and get back on track.
“Everyone is working really hard, especially the boys up front. They are doing everything they can to possibly score. The whole team, collectively, has to give them opportunities to score and defend well as a team. It’s all about the whole team playing well and creating chances for people to score. We feel that will turn very soon.”
Although not particularly big in stature, 29-year-old Bozanic is relishing the speed and physicality of Scottish football after leaving the Hyundai A League in his homeland.
What he is ultimately trying to achieve is a turnaround in Hearts’ fortunes and a return to the kind of shwashbuckling displays witnessed in Gorgie earlier this season.
“It’s great to be back in the team but, of course, the team comes first. We want to get back to winning ways,” explained Bozanic. “I’ve been working really hard, waiting for my chance. Hopefully I’ll keep improving and prove myself here at Hearts.”
A St Johnstone win tonight would take them above fourth-placed Hearts in the Premiership table. “They are doing fantastic. Our job is to stop that and get back on track ourselves,” said Bozanic. “The pace of the game here is quicker than Australia. In Australia, you play in the summer heat so it is a little bit quicker here. I knew coming here it was going to be a very physical league and I love it.”