Can Hearts home in on title challengers Rangers and Celtic? Evidence offers a clear answer

The Tynecastle club are in rich form as numbers hint at an intriguing end to the season

A fascinating end to the Scottish Premiership season appears to be in the offing as Rangers and Celtic challenge for the title, while Hearts attempt to close in on the top two. The Edinburgh club would doubtless prefer to fly beneath the radar but their quite astounding recent form makes that almost impossible.

Having amassed 40 league points from the last 48 available, Hearts sit third in the table with a 14-point lead over fourth-placed Kilmarnock. They are closer to second-placed Celtic, who are 11 points better off, and leaders Rangers, who have 13 more.

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With 12 games remaining, talk of a genuine title challenge in Gorgie is probably not realistic. Bear in mind that the last time a club other than the traditional big two became champions of Scotland was back in 1985 when Aberdeen finished first. However, Hearts' current run suggests they can home in on the Glasgow duopoly and apply some pressure.

Their next three matches will offer a clearer indication of whether that will happen. Steven Naismith takes his side to Ibrox this Saturday before Hibs visit Tynecastle Park next Wednesday. Celtic are due in Gorgie four days later to complete a potentially defining three-game period. It is one Hearts will enter with confidence.

That 40-point haul from the last 48 puts them ahead of Celtic on form. The Parkhead side have taken 36 points during the same 16-game period. Rangers are the Premiership's most in-form side with 43 points. They moved two clear at the top of the table on Sunday after overhauling the eight-point advantage Celtic held in December.

Hearts have scored 26 goals and conceded 11 in their last 16 Premiership matches, while Celtic have hit the net 35 times and conceded on 12 occasions. Rangers managed 37 goals, losing only seven. Provided those in maroon can maintain their current consistency, they have the potential to close the gap on Celtic in second place and play their part in an intriguing end to the campaign.

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Some substandard performances and results have led to unrest and chants of "sack the board" in Glasgow's east end. Saturday's 1-1 draw with Kilmarnock is a case in point. By contrast, Hearts fans who criticised Naismith and the Tynecastle hierarchy earlier in the season have been quietened by their team's best sequence of results in 13 years. Rangers have also been transformed since manager Philippe Clement arrived in mid-October.

Hearts' fortunes between now and May rest heavily on captain and top goalscorer Lawrence Shankland, of course. The striker has claimed 15 of those 26 goals his team scored over the last 16 league games. There is no bigger talisman in Scottish football at present than the man who, as the chant goes, "wears number nine, scores all the time". He will again be a key figure this weekend.

Shankland scored in both of Hearts' previous visits to Ibrox under Naismith, a coach who is proving capable of causing upsets in Glasgow. A 2-2 draw away to Rangers last May - during Naismith's spell as interim Hearts manager - was followed by a narrow 2-1 defeat in October, when both Rangers goals came in stoppage-time after Shankland's early header put the visitors ahead.

There is also the 2-0 win at Celtic Park in December which contributes to Hearts' 40-point total from the last 48. That was the Edinburgh club's first league win away to Celtic since 2007. Victory at Rangers on Saturday would set yet more cats among the Glasgow pigeons, and further underline Hearts' ability to pull themselves closer to an area of the Premiership table normally considered unattainable for anyone else.

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