Craig Levein has no concerns about pitching Hearts talisman Steven Naismith straight back into the starting line-up against Aberdeen today after a two-month lay-off.
The 32-year-old attacker has been missing since sustaining a knee injury in the Betfred Cup semi-final defeat by Celtic at the end of October but will return to the side at Pittodrie this afternoon.
Hearts have won only one of their past nine games in Naismith’s absence and Levein is excited about restoring him to a team depleted by injuries and reeling from last Friday’s 5-0 defeat at Livingston.
“Steven’s trained this week and it’s been great to hear him on the training ground, shouting at everybody,” said the manager. “He will start. I’m not in a position where I can ease people back in gently. We’ve had a couple of injuries this week, Craig Wighton and Harry Cochrane, adding to our problems. But the plus side is Steven coming back – and that will help everybody.”
Asked about how sharp he expects Naismith to be after two months out, Levein pointed to the impressive form of captain Christophe Berra in his first three games back after a four-month absence.
“You saw Christophe coming back after being out for three or four months – and he went straight back in. Because he’s an experienced player, he just knows what he’s doing. He also knows that, at this level, he’s one of the best players in the league – so he just goes in and does what he does. Steven will be the same. He’s diligent in everything he does. His work in leading up to rejoining the group this week has been exceptional.
“Mikey Williams, who works with the players returning to fitness, talks about him and Christophe as examples. The way they train, the way they behave, the way they adapt from being an injured player to a recovering player, then to a player back with the group. You need to be really focused and diligent and both Steven and Christophe have been amazing.”
Levein’s main selection issue today is in defence, where Clevid Dikamona’s injury last week has left him short of centre-backs. The availability of young right-backs Jamie Brandon and Marcus Godinho gives the manager the option of using Michael Smith in the middle alongside Berra, while midfielder Peter Haring could also drop back into defence.
“Clevid got injured which was another thing that didn’t help. Jamie’s played a couple of reserve games. He’s back in the squad. Marcus is back as well. He missed out last week with a bit of bruising.
“It helps that both him and Jamie are available so we’ll see what happens.”