Craig Levein is confident Hearts will be strong enough to compete with Hibs as he prepares to send out a cobbled-together midfield at Easter Road tonight.
The manager concedes that his side are weakened in the middle of the park by the injury-enforced absences of key men Don Cowie and Arnaud Djoum, and recognises that Hibs, with Marvin Bartley, Dylan McGeouch and John McGinn all likely to start, are particularly strong in this area. With Malaury Martin also injured, Ross Callachan and Prince Buaben, whose contribution to recent matches against Dundee and St Johnstone has been the subject of criticism, are the only two senior players available who specialise in playing in the engine room.
Connor Randall, the versatile on-loan Liverpool player, is likely to be deployed in a midfield role on his return from suspension, while Polish defenders Rafal Grzelak and Krystian Nowak have experience of playing centrally and could be considered. It is not beyond possibility that Levein may opt to start 16-year-old Harry Cochrane or even 21-year-old Angus Beith, who is still awaiting a first-team debut.
Despite the shortage of established midfield options, Levein, who joked that he would have an idea of his line-up by 7.30pm tonight, believes his team have enough about them to stop a run of three consecutive defeats at Easter Road and potentially end a run of seven games without victory over Hibs.
“I would argue we are a stronger team now than in any point in the last couple of years,” said the manager. “We have big characters in the team now, which we did not have.
“That will help us. We are weak in the midfield, right, I accept that, but that’s just through circumstances at the moment. That area will be vital. We may need to defend a wee bit better because of that, but we will cobble something together.”
The presence of experienced pair Kyle Lafferty and Christophe Berra is a source of encouragement for Levein. “Kyle and Christophe are players in particular who are not fazed by playing in these big games,” said the manager. “They have notable experience and also talent. That makes me feel good going into a game. We have also been pretty good defensively, although there’s more to come from us in an attacking sense. I feel fairly confident.”
Hearts may have endured some difficult times on their recent visits to Easter Road during Levein’s tenure as director of football, but he is relishing his first derby since becoming manager once again almost two months ago. “I am looking forward to it,” he said.
“This was one of the big things I missed. It is just the all or nothingness of it. Complete joy or despair. The thought of that makes me quite excited. I don’t feel extra pressure. The game itself brings pressure which is greater than some other matches. But the whole occasion, it is a joy to be involved in. I thought that as a player and as a manager last time, probably because we had notable success, so hopefully that can happen again.”
Levein, whose side can temporarily climb to third place in the Premiership with a win tonight, acknowledges that Hearts have performed poorly in the Scottish Cup derbies over the past two seasons and is intent on ensuring they stop their barren run in the fixture and regain the city bragging rights. “Basically, we haven’t played very well or competed well enough (in recent derbies),” said the manager. “I thought Robbie Neilson was very unlucky with the first game in one of the cup ties (the 2-2 draw at Tynecastle in February 2016). We had five injuries at half-time and people being put back on the park with injuries and such like, and we just ran out of bodies in that match. That almost kick-started Hibs’ recent run of decent results.
“With them being in the lower division, much was made of the cup games because they were the only ones that were played in those two seasons. These things go in cycles though. It is important we break the run of recent success for Hibs. Then the pendulum can start swinging the other way again.”