Hearts captain Christophe Berra is poised for a fast-track return against Rangers with fellow centre-back Jimmy Dunne nursing an ankle injury.
Dunne suffered a knock in training which opens the door for Berra after four months out with a torn hamstring.
The 33-year-old played 45 minutes in a friendly against Linlithgow Rose on Wednesday night and emerged unscathed. The Hearts manager Craig Levein will check on him in training today but, should Dunne’s ankle complaint preclude him, Berra will be called upon to partner Clevid Dikamona against Rangers on Sunday.
“I want to wait and watch training, see how Christophe feels as well,” explained Levein. “Being an experienced player, we’ll see how far down the road he thinks he is to full fitness.
“There’s no reaction to the injury. Sometimes, in these situations, something else can be a problem but he’s been quite diligent, as he is with everything, in his rehab. I expect him to be okay.
“He was good the other night. His numbers and stats for the game were fairly low, as you would imagine. The pitch was quite heavy and, at one point, we toyed with the option of not playing him just because of how slippery it was. But he got through it.”
Berra’s rapid recovery is a boost for everyone at Hearts, added to the imminent return of Steven Naismith from a knee injury. Naismith began jogging at Riccarton yesterday and is expected to don a maroon shirt again later this month.
Levein has been content with Dikamona and Dunne’s defensive partnership in the absence of Berra and John Souttar, who is sidelined until next year. However, the manager acknowledged the influence of having his captain available. “I think getting him back, even having him on the team sheet, is a boost for everybody. His leadership qualities are renowned so he is important to us,” admitted Levein.
“Not that I would be critical of the centre-backs who have been playing in his place, but he has a presence and an aura about him that helps us. And maybe the opposition also look at the teamsheet and think: ‘Oh right, he’s back’.
“Christophe hasn’t quite cut his recovery time in half, but he’s three or four weeks ahead of schedule. All the way through the history of his strength tests, which give us the main information about where he is, they’ve been good.
“He’s been outside sprinting, he’s done everything he needs to do in a match. The only difficulty is the extended period that he would need to play. The last 30 minutes, where he would be fine with sprinting in the previous hour, as the muscle gets tired, it becomes more of a problem.
“That is just about how he feels on Sunday, if we put him in, how long he plays. That has to be managed. And then we’ve got a game against St Johnstone. So those are other factors I need to include in my thinking.”
Levein was an interested spectator at Ibrox on Thursday night as Rangers drew 0-0 with Villarreal in the Europa League. The sending off of Daniel Candeias near half-time made life difficult for Rangers, who had goalkeeper Allan McGregor to thank for their point.
Hearts will now aim to capitalise on any fatigue hindering Steven Gerrard’s side after playing 45 minutes with ten men just three days before a visit to Tynecastle Park.
“To play more than half the match with ten men, it’s a good result,” said Levein. “But that effort takes it out of players and, for that to count in our favour on Sunday, we need to keep the pace of the match as high as possible for as long as possible.
“If we don’t do that then we’re giving them time to recover, which we don’t want to do. Our team is fit so we need to keep up that tempo throughout.
“I can’t say that’s absolutely going to make the difference. Logically, after Rangers have played such a high-pressure match, if we can make it about stamina and running then hopefully we can get something from the match.”