Alfredo Morelos won’t face Hearts at Ibrox tomorrow after lashing out and earning his fifth red card of the season against Celtic. The absence of a 29-goal striker is as devastating a blow to Rangers as it is a pre-match tonic for Craig Levein’s side.
Hearts goalkeeper Zdenek Zlamal still expects to be busy in Glasgow, however. An acrobatic save to push Sam Consgrove’s header over his crossbar was one of few moments of action for the Czech during Saturday’s 2-1 home win against Aberdeen. Tomorrow will be decidedly different, even with Morelos suspended and confined to the stand alongside team-mate Andy Halliday.
Zlamal is preparing for an eventful evening but is confident Hearts can record their first top-flight victory at Ibrox in seven years after the inspiring win against Aberdeen. “Yes, I will probably be much more busy than Saturday,” smirked the Czech in an exclusive Evening News interview.
“We know the quality of Rangers. I think they will be under more pressure than us. We want to play like we did in the second half on Saturday. In football you never know because anything can happen. If we did not play well against Aberdeen it would be much harder to go to Ibrox and play. Now, after our performance, we are confident going away to Rangers.”
It is worth recalling Hearts’ travails on their previous visit there as a cautionary tale ahead of this fixture. Riding high at the top of the Ladbrokes Premiership and unbeaten into October, they were similarly confident of achieving a result in Glasgow. Yet some erratic defending left them 2-0 down inside 13 minutes as Ryan Kent and Morelos scored. Scott Arfield added a third just after the half-hour mark to end the game as a contest. It finished 3-1 with Jimmy Dunne scoring a consolation for the visitors.
“That was our first defeat of the season. I think tomorrow will be a different game. If we are compact and we don’t give away chances, then we could be successful,” said Zlamal.
Continuing the kind of rigid defending Hearts displayed in the second half against Aberdeen will be vital. A three-man back line containing John Souttar, Christophe Berra and Conor Shaughnessy became the foundations for a solid win despite Connor McLennan heading the visitors into an early lead.
“We played very well in the second half so I didn’t have much work to do,” said Zlamal. “The first half and the second half were very different for us. Aberdeen were better in the first half but we did well in the second half and I think we deserved to win. It’s an important three points and it’s good for our confidence with big games coming up.
“I thought maybe I would have more saves to make so I was very concentrated during the second half. Sometimes goalkeepers don’t have much to do and then there is one shot from nowhere. Our players played very cleverly, though, especially in the last minutes by holding the ball far away from goal.”
Uche Ikpeazu claimed the after-match headlines at the end of an eventful day. The striker scored the winner after missing an open goal and being booked unfairly for diving. Then came a head injury which forced him off and the sight of him being wheeled round the touchline on a stretcher looking dazed caused huge concern ahead of the journey to Ibrox.
“I always say to Uche that he is the GOAT [Greatest Of All Time],” laughed Zlamal. “He is a good guy. He has the spirit and he is like the X-Factor for us. With every long ball he gets he will do something and that keeps the crowd positive. He is a very important player for us. I hope he will be well enough to play at Ibrox because, for us, that would be a big advantage.
“If not, then we have other strikers so we will need to see what happens. We are hoping he will be alright. He went to hospital after the game on Saturday.”
Another injury is the last thing Levein wanted, especially to a player who has developed into such a focal point – not to mention cult hero – in maroon this season. News of Ben Garuccio being sidelined for ten months with a torn anterior cruciate ligament was still fresh in the mind when Ikpeazu fell to the turf following a challenge with the Aberdeen defender Dominic Ball.
“Last week we had Ben’s injury to deal with. He was playing very well and he was missing, but defensively we were brilliant against Aberdeen. Especially after half-time,” Zlamal pointed out.
The goalkeeper now hopes to see a familiar defence line up in front of him between now and the end of the season. “I hope we will be settled more and keep going like that. We have been waiting for this confidence.”
The boost seems to have come at just the right time. Hearts had stuttered along prior to last month’s international break but beating Aberdeen is the ideal platform to enter a demanding run of fixtures.
The visit to Rangers is followed by an Edinburgh derby against Hibs at Tynecastle on Saturday. A week later, Hearts travel to Glasgow again to meet Inverness Caledonian Thistle in the Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden Park. An intense ending to the campaign is guaranteed as the push for the Europa League qualifying rounds accelerates.
“There are massive games coming and everybody is excited about that. This is why we play football,” said Zlamal. “I love this game. It will be nice for our fans and for everybody involved with Hearts. We feel good and I hope we will be successful.”