Hearts boss must lift shellshocked troops as they look to extend unbeaten SPL run on trip to McDiarmid Park

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SOMERSET PARK is best forgotten for Hearts as they head to McDiarmid Park on Sunday looking to extend a six-game SPL unbeaten run.

The omens look good with the Tynecastle side losing just once in Perth over the past 11 years. However, the challenge facing manager Paulo Sergio this weekend is to rejuvenate his players following their Scottish Communities League Cup exit to Ayr United.

His task becomes slightly easier because of the raft of first-team regulars who did not suffer in Ayrshire on Wednesday evening. Jamie Hamill, Ryan Stevenson, Jamie MacDonald, Ian Black, Adrian Mrowiec and, fitness permitting, Andy Webster, could all return to the starting XI for Sunday’s lunchtime kick-off. It must be hoped that their experience and general buoyancy – they have helped Hearts construct a five-game unbeaten league run – can counteract any disappointment lingering within others from midweek.

Losing on penalties to Ayr, the First Division’s bottom club, was a genuine cup upset. Hearts exited the same competition to Falkirk last season and the dejection was again clear to see as the players trudged out of Somerset Park late on Wednesday evening following a 4-1 defeat on penalties. But Sergio will take solace from the fact he can recall several experienced faces.

His team selections have hitherto centred around a core of players that he clearly considers as most reliable. With the exception of the injured MacDonald, who has been deputising for the injured Marian Kello in goal, most of those were rested on Wednesday and consequently absolved of blame. Hamill is Sergio’s preferred right-back ahead of Ryan McGowan, Black and Mrowiec are midfield anchors and Stevenson’s guile in attack has proven most useful since his two goals in the Portuguese’s debut against Paksi SE. Webster, when fit, is a natural first-choice in central defence.

Add Danny Grainger and Marius Zaliukas to the pack and you have the experienced hub of Sergio’s Hearts team. Zaliukas remains club captain despite many, including some within the corridors of Riccarton, expressing concern about his penchant for unforced errors in defence. That aside, the group of players in question appear to have adapted to Sergio’s philosophy and taken on board his wish to play patient, passing football.

Stevenson, a former St Johnstone player, has grown immeasurably since leaving Ayr to join Hearts 18 months ago. His progress accelerated following the arrival of Sergio and his assistants, Sergio Cruz and Alberto Cabral, in Edinburgh. Their innovative coaching methods have prompted compliments from many at Riccarton and Stevenson, at 27, is approaching his peak. He is already one of the most effective attacking midfielders in the country, not to mention one of the most industrious and tenacious. His ability to lead the forward line, either by himself or with a partner, gives him additional appeal. He has performed this role several times for Sergio already and is extremely adept at working channels, holding the ball up and linking with colleagues. On Hearts’ previous visit to McDiarmid Park last November, Stevenson climbed off the substitutes’ bench with ten minutes remaining and struck a decisive second goal in a 2-0 win. That strike exemplified his ability to break from a deep position as he sprung St Johnstone’s offside trap to drive his finish low past Peter Enckelman.

St Johnstone also lost their midweek cup tie at home to St Mirren, further illustration of what has been a rather inconsistent campaign to date. They won at Celtic Park last month by dint of Dave Mackay’s goal and finished comfortable 3-0 winners at Fir Park last weekend. In contrast, however, Rangers and Dunfermline have won at McDiarmid before St Mirren did likewise on Tuesday night.

Both teams will doubtless see Sunday’s game as an opportunity to compound the other’s midweek misery. What Derek McInnes, the St Johnstone manager, is missing is the squad depth which Sergio could benefit from. He will most likely ask the same players who lost to St Mirren to redeem themselves by beating Hearts to move level on points with the Edinburgh club in the SPL table.

If that is to transpire, the Spanish forward Francisco Sandaza is likely to be a key figure. He could perhaps be considered St Johnstone’s equivalent to Stevenson as someone whose game has progressed to a new level since joining his current employers. Six goals in seven games this season offer evidence of his threat and have left McInnes’ more reputable attacking recruit, Cillian Sheridan, in the shade thus far.

Sandaza is clearly hungry for success and, in time, may find himself attracting attention from bigger clubs. He certainly can’t be underestimated but the fresher side on Sunday should be the visitors. The temptation to rest so many established names may have contributed to Hearts’ League Cup loss, but it may now accord them a vital advantage for a trip to a difficult SPL venue.