Liam Boyce is winning his fitness battle ahead of Hearts’ Scottish Cup quarter-final against Rangers. At a time when good news comes at a premium around Riccarton, having the first-choice striker available after illness is a welcome perk up.
He has been beset by illness on top of back complaints and would not have played had last Friday’s Premiership match at St Mirren gone ahead. After recovering over the weekend, Boyce resumed training in midweek and is in contention to face Rangers.
“Last week Liam could not play but he is back and was good in training,” reported Daniel Stendel, the Hearts manager. “He was ill last week and had problems with his back but he looked good in training. I think he is fit to play. Aidy White is also back in training.”
Unfortunately for Stendel, the positive news is tempered somewhat. The on-loan Barnsley midfielder Toby Sibbick has still to recover fully from glandular fever so is unlikely to feature at Tynecastle Park in front of the Premier Sports cameras tomorrow evening. “When he is fit or can train I will say that, but there is no news at the moment,” added Stendel.
The manager worked late at the training ground on Wednesday night whilst Rangers were progressing past Braga to the Europa League last 16. Energy expended in Portugal may leave some of Steven Gerrard’s players feeling fatigued against Hearts, although they are likely to arrive in the Capital emotionally buoyed by their exploits in the Monte do Castro quarry.
“I saw they won the game,” said Stendel. “We watched the game and we have the information from the analysis. This is a good result for Scottish football. It doesn’t matter if Rangers are an opposition team or not, it is good for Scottish football that they won this game and got to the next round. I think Rangers, and us, also know this is another game on Saturday.”
Hearts beat Rangers 2-1 in the league only five weeks ago with Boyce scoring the winning goal on his debut. Sibbick also made his first appearance in maroon that day and impressed in a holding midfield role.
The Edinburgh club remain bottom of the Ladbrokes Premiership and are in real danger of being relegated to Scotland’s second tier. In a one-off cup game so soon after a win against tomorrow’s opponents, they harbour belief that a repeat result is within their capabilities.
“We know we can beat Rangers at Tynecastle and they know it as well,” said Stendel. “We’re focused for Saturday and we know it’s a chance for us. We need a positive result and have the chance to win but everyone can see in the stadium that we fight for everything – for positive results and to stay up.
“This is not a league game but it’s a good game to show that we know we don’t have more time [in the league]. Especially after Tuesday night, it’s clear. The time is over.”
St Mirren’s victory at Motherwell on Tuesday pushed them six points ahead of Hearts in the table. Hamilton are two points ahead and are the first target for Stendel and his players when league duties resume next week.
For now, the cup must take priority even if some observers might view it as an untimely distraction from the relegation battle. Injury problems are easing at Riccarton, with Peter Haring the only long-term absentee because of an ongoing problem in his pelvis/groin area. It remains to be seen if he is able to make any contribution to this campaign, and there is no doubt he has been sorely missed in central midfield.
Michael Smith may find himself continuing in that position tomorrow night, with Andy Irving likely to be by his side. The German midfielder Marcel Langer is ineligible. He is serving the the second of a two-game ban issued for a red card at Celtic Park earlier this month and will be available thereafter.
Hearts’ previous win against Rangers was supposed to infuse all concerned with the confidence and momentum to start climbing up the league. It proved a false dawn. The only victory garnered in five games since came at League One Falkirk in the previous round of the Scottish Cup.
“We want to use the memories from the last game but this game starts anew,” explained Stendel. “We cannot take things from the last game but memories are good. Positive thoughts are good, but we need to invest so much energy against a team with this quality. Every time we believe we can win. This is important to have in our heads.”
The postponement last weekend gave the Hearts squad an unexpected break from what has been a draining campaign. Stendel took the opportunity to fly home to Germany and visit his family.
“It was the first time in eight weeks that I could see my family,” he explained. “When you work as a manager, you don’t really have one minute off. It is good being away from all that you see every day when it’s the same. It was good and we started with new energy on Monday, so we work for Saturday.”