Craig Levein has hailed Hearts centre-back John Souttar as the form defender in Scotland and backed him to break into the international set-up.
Souttar has been enjoying a quietly impressive season at the back for the Jambos alongside Christophe Berra in what has been a frugal defence under Levein.
They have currently conceded just once in their last three games after going on a run of eight successive clean sheets earlier in the season, and while Levein has praised the experience of Berra for playing a crucial role, he believes Souttar is the best defender in the Ladbrokes Premiership on current form.
“I don’t doubt for a second that Christophe has had a huge influence on our defensive displays, but he has also brought the best out in John Souttar,” Levein said ahead of his side’s trip to face Rangers at Ibrox.
“If there is a better centre-back in the league right now, I would be surprised. John is at the top of his game.
“We all know he can pass, play and break out of defence, but his heading and general awareness of dangerous situations has improved immeasurably.
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“I think he is a top, top player and I think Christophe, Jon McLaughlin and Aaron (Hughes) have had a fairly big impact.
“As much as you can impact and coach them, in the heat of the moment where a decision has to be made, having an experienced player alongside to help you is much better than talking about something after the game.”
He added: “John has improved every year he’s been here.
“He had that Achilles injury that kept him out nine or 10 months, but he has come back stronger and I feel that he’s at the top of his game right now.
“I think he is as good as there is, certainly in Scotland at the minute.”
Souttar has long been rated as a prospect in the Scottish game after making his Dundee United debut at the age of 16, but injuries and loss of form have held him back.
Now 21, there is still plenty of time for him to achieve his potential and Levein believes he is ready to feature for Scotland and solve what has become a problematic centre-back position ahead of Alex McLeish’s return to international football on March 23.
“I think he is ready,” he said. “He’s at the point in his career where he feels confident going up against anybody.
“He’s excellent in possession, he’s one of the quickest players on our team, he’s aggressive, good in the air, all the things you need in a centre-back and is playing as well as he has ever played.
“I don’t think there’s anybody playing better just now.”
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