Aberdeen v Hearts preview: Naismith returns | who starts in defence? | contrasting form guides

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Hearts have been boosted in their attempts to climb back level on points with Saturday’s hosts in the Ladbrokes Premiership after it was announced that Steven Naismith will be fit to start the match.

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Hearts striker Steven Naismith has returned from injury. Picture: SNS

Hearts striker Steven Naismith has returned from injury. Picture: SNS

The Scotland striker has been absent since suffering a knee injury in the 3-0 Betfred Cup final defeat against Celtic and Hearts’ form has plummeted in his absence.

While his return will alleviate some of the issues in attack, the defence has struggled mightily in recent weeks after the unit suffered their fair share of injury problems also.

Clevid Dikamona has joined the list of casualties and manager Craig Levein will therefore be left with a headache (and not a welcoming one) over who to pick alongside Christophe Berra at centre-back. Does he go with Aaron Hughes, who struggled after coming on as substitute for Dikamona against Livingston, or move Michael Smith to the centre and start youngster Marcus Godinho at right-back?

While they are pre-match underdogs (pricing around 3/1 with the bookmakers) if they can secure a victory it would be a tremendous boost going into the last two games before the winter break: a home clash with Hamilton and an Edinburgh derby trip to Easter Road.

The hosts, meanwhile, have recently been disappointed to learn that impressive full-back Max Lowe will not be returning to Pittodrie after the winter break as parent club Derby County wish for him to return down south when his loan deal expires.

Injuries / suspensions / unavailable

Aberdeen - Gary Mackay-Steven will not return for this clash as the winger continues to recuperate from concussion, though manager Derek McInnes expects to have him back for the Boxing Day fixture with Celtic. Michael Devlin was sent to a specialist to get to the bottom of his foot tendon problem and will miss the rest of the year. Veteran Mark Reynolds is back in training but this game will probably come too soon for the defender. Tomas Hoban (shoulder) remains a long-term casualty.

Hearts - As well as Dikamona, Hearts will be without Arnaud Djoum who is suspended for this match after receiving two yellow cards in the 5-0 defeat against Livingston last time out. They will be joined on the sidelines by Craig Wighton and Harry Cochrane, both of whom have picked up ankle knocks. The Jam Tarts will remain without the services of Ucke Ikpeazu (foot), John Souttar (hip), Jimmy Dunne (ankle) until the new year.

Magic number - 8

The number of goals Hearts have scored in the last 10 years at Pittodrie. It doesn’t bode well with the club’s struggles in attack over the last few weeks.

Key battle

If Hearts are going to get anything from the game then Naismith will have to come in and hit the ground running. At Tynecastle in October he wound up Michael Devlin something rotten as the centre-back, who has performed well this season, became increasingly frustrated at trying to battle the attacker. Naismith will have to do likewise to Scott McKenna this time around.

Key stats

Aberdeen have won seven of their last nine in the Ladbrokes Premiership, while Hearts have won just twice in the league over the same stretch. The Dons have been assisted in their run by a sudden scoring burst from Sam Cosgrove, who’s netted four goals in the last three games, which accounts for over half of his entire career total (seven). Hearts haven’t had a striker score for them since the 3-0 win away to Dundee in late October, the last league game Naismith played before injury.

Referee

This will be the fourth time Hearts have been refereed by John Beaton this season and it’s been a bit of mixed bag so far. The early season win over Celtic was overseen by the whistler, though he was also in charge for the 5-0 hammering in the corresponding fixture at Celtic Park. The other match he officiated was the 3-1 loss to Rangers at Ibrox in October. For Aberdeen, Beaton was the referee for their 3-0 defeat to Motherwell and 1-0 Betfred Cup semi-final triumph over Rangers.

Possible teams

Aberdeen (4-4-2): Lewis; Logan, McKenna, Considine, Lowe; McLennan, Shinnie, Ferguson, McGinn; Cosgrove, May. Subs from: Cerny, Tansey, Forrester, Gleeson, Wright, Ball, Ross, Anderson, Wilson

Hearts (4-4-2): Zlamal; Smith, Hughes, Berra, Mitchell; Morrison, Haring, Lee, Bozanic; Naismith, MacLean. Subs from: Doyle, Godinho, Garuccio, Brandon, Mitchell, Mulraney, Amankwaa, Clare, McDonald, Hickey