Craig Levein admits he is excited by the prospect of seeing how table-topping Hearts cope with the demands of tomorrow’s trip to fortress Ibrox.
The Tynecastle side are unbeaten in all 13 competitive matches this season and sit five points clear at the top of the Ladbrokes Premiership. Tomorrow they visit a Rangers team who made it eight home wins out of nine in all competitions this term when defeating Rapid Vienna 3-1 in the Europa League on Thursday.
Levein acknowledges it will be a formidable test, but the manager is confident his team have enough in their armoury to have a chance of gaining a first win in Govan since 2014.
“They are good at home,” he said. “They are a totally different team at Ibrox and that makes it a very interesting proposition for us. I’m really excited to find out how we’ll do.
“I feel like we achieved a lot of different things this season and won matches in a lot of different ways, coming up against some difficult opponents in difficult situations. But going away from home to either of the two big clubs in Glasgow is always difficult. With Rangers’ home form, that makes it even more challenging.
“There’s an interesting dynamic to this game, with Rangers having performed so well at home – it is exemplary – and our away form, for the first time in years, has been excellent too. I can’t wait to see how it pans out. I’m as fascinated as everyone else. I want to see how these guys do in this sort of game. It’s a chance to test ourselves and play with the confidence that should have been gained by virtue of the performances up until now. I’m really interested and excited.”
Levein has full faith in his own team’s ability to impose themselves at a venue where most other clubs have struggled this season. “The main thing for me is that we try to maintain our current form,” he said. “We don’t want to lose and if we can pick up all three points, that would be fantastic. Of course we need to be aware of the threat of the opposition, but what I don’t want to do is underestimate our own abilities and strengths.”
Uche Ikpeazu, who has missed Hearts’ past three matches with a foot injury, remains doubtful for tomorrow’s match. “Uche is improving, but whether he will be ready, I don’t know,” said Levein. “He hasn’t trained with the group at all since his injury in the Motherwell game. I am hopeful he can get a full training session on Saturday but, if he doesn’t, then it’s highly unlikely he’ll be available for Rangers.”
Recent signing Sean Clare is also unlikely to feature tomorrow as he continues to build up his fitness and confidence. “Sean is improving all the time,” said Levein. “He had an operation in March and has done a lot of work on his own, but I need to get him back into the daily hustle and bustle of training routines, and give him time to find confidence that his injury has recovered sufficiently for the rigours of day-to-day training. We are getting to that point. He has been good in training. However, I only want to put him in when he is ready. There is a lot of expectation surrounding him and I’ve spoken very highly of him, and first impressions are important, so I only want him to play when he’s ready.”
Another player working his way towards more prominent involvement is Danny Amankwaa. The Danish winger had become a peripheral figure after an underwhelming start to his Hearts career but has come on as a late substitute in his team’s last two matches. “He’s been getting better, it has taken a while,” said Levein. “The football here is completely different to what he has been used to and it’s been about getting him up to speed and allowing him to go on the field capable of doing what we’re asking him to do. It was everything, to do with his fitness and the type of running he needs to do off the ball as well as on it. It has taken a hell of a long time, but he’s getting there.”
Levein remains hopeful that Amankwaa can fulfil the potential that prompted him to sign him in January. “He’ll get left behind if he doesn’t maintain his standards,” said the manager. “There is no doubting his ability, but the rest of it is down to him.”