Craig Levein remains adamant that he has enough options within his injury-hit squad to ensure Hearts start firing again after a three-game run without a goal.
The Tynecastle side suffered a 5-0 defeat away to Celtic on Saturday at the end of a week in which they lost 3-0 to the same opponents in the Betfred Cup semi-final and were held to a goalless draw by ten-man Hibs. Those three matches were played predominantly without top scorer Steven Naismith, who last week underwent an operation on a knee injury which will keep him sidelined until just before the winter break. Uche Ikpeazu is out long term with a foot injury, leaving 36-year-old Steven MacLean and 21-year-old Craig Wighton, who has made only one start since joining two months ago, as the only available recognised strikers. While acknowledging that the situation is far from ideal at a time when Hearts remain a point clear at the top of the Premiership, Levein is confident he has enough options to muddle through until Naismith returns and Czech striker David Vanecek, who scored his eighth goal of the season for Teplice on Friday, arrives in January. “We’ve had two games against Celtic and the other one was a tough match when we didn’t have MacLean either,” Levein told the Evening News. “We could have had a couple of goals at Celtic Park but I’m not worried about that side of things. We’ve got enough options. We’ve got Steven MacLean. We got some game time into Craig Wighton, we’ve seen Callumn (Morrison) play up front – at an absolute push we could maybe do that again. It’s not ideal but I’m not overly worried about it.”
Wighton has featured in only six of Hearts’ 11 matches since arriving from Dundee in late August, with five of those appearances coming as a late substitute. Levein believes he is getting closer to the level required whereby he can be used more prominently. “Craig’s had a couple of niggling injuries,” said the manager. “He needs to be a bit more battle-hardened. The training tempo is really high and we need him to get up to speed. He’s getting there. I feel better about putting him on the field now but I think it’ll be after the winter break before we see the best of him.”
Asked if veteran MacLean, who has already played more minutes than most supporters anticipated when he arrived from St Johnstone in the summer, still has the capacity to start games week in, week out, Levein smiled: “He’s no choice!”
MacLean was partnered in attack on Saturday by winger Jake Mulraney, who came in for his first start since the victory at Kilmarnock in August. “Jake did okay considering he’s not played a lot of football,” said Levein. “It was a little bit alien for him playing up front. He had a few good moments in the first half and then again in the second half. When he runs at people he looks like he can cause problems for the opposition.”
Hearts lost Demetri Mitchell to a dead leg at half-time at Celtic Park, but Levein is confident the on-loan Manchester United left-back will be fit to face Kilmarnock at Tynecastle this weekend. “He got a dead leg in the first half,” said the manager. “I think he’ll be alright for Saturday but obviously it’s a sore one. Ben Garuccio did quite well when he came on so that’s one thing we’ve got. We’ve still got the strength in depth where we can bring players in who can affect the team. Having to take Demi off is never good but being able to put Ben on makes me feel better about it.”