Michael Smith is hoping Hearts can capitalise on the absence of Rangers’ two main attacking threats at Tynecastle today.
Top scorer Alfredo Morelos and on-loan Liverpool winger Ryan Kent are both suspended for Steven Gerrard’s team following their misdemeanours in the recent Old Firm derby at Celtic Park.
Smith, who was given a torrid time by Kent at Ibrox in October, believes the fact two such influential players are out can only aid Hearts’ cause as they target a first win in this fixture since February 2017.
“Rangers are a good team with a couple of decent players missing this weekend,” said Smith. “Theoretically, them missing should make it easier because they are two fantastic players.
“Kent has had a fantastic season. I’ve come up against him directly and he’s a great player. His speed, his change of direction, his acceleration. He’s as good as anyone I’ve ever played against and as a winger he’s got what you need to get past players. He’s really good at taking people on.
“That’s why he’s had such a great season. I can’t think of anyone else who has been as consistently good.
“Morelos scores goals but has a disciplinary record that is not great. But they are two fantastic players and it gives us a better chance, definitely. But we give anyone a game at Tynecastle. The last time we played them here it should have been 1-1 but for a stinker of a decision from the linesman. I’m looking forward to the game.”
Hearts have a Scottish Cup final against Celtic to look forward to in five weeks, but right-back Smith insists full focus is on ensuring they finish their league campaign in flourish and move higher up the table from their position of sixth.
“Getting to the cup final is nice and it will give everyone a lift going into these last five games,” said Smith. “But we can’t stop playing football. We have to go out and give our all against these so-called big teams. We are a few points away from fourth place but we still have to try and get there and get into Europe that way.”
Competition for places in the Hampden showpiece will also fuel Hearts for the remaining fixtures. “If you are in the team now, the challenge is to stay in it right up to the cup final starting XI,” said Smith. “It’s down to us to go out and perform consistently so the gaffer picks us. We will be going out and giving our all.”
Smith recently endured a two-month lay-off with a thigh injury sustained in the Scottish Cup victory over Auchinleck Talbot in February. He returned to action against Hibs a fortnight ago and feels in good fettle. “I was fuming when I got injured, but these things happen and I’ve just had to work hard to get back,” he said. “I was aiming for the Hibs game. I was not 100 per cent but we agreed that 60 minutes was enough. The gaffer said he needed my experience so I played and I came through it well and I got 90 minutes on Saturday against Inverness. I’m 100 per cent now.”
Smith is pleased to see his fellow Northern Irishman Bobby Burns force his way into Hearts’ starting line-up in the last couple of games.
The 19-year-old has started against both Hibs and Inverness and has generally coped well with the demands of the two high-profile fixtures.
“He came over on trial last summer and I was delighted to see him sign,” said Smith. “As someone from the same country, you try and take him under your wing. But you can see he has ability and going out on loan to Livingston toughened him up a bit. In the last couple of games he’s been fantastic.
“Off the pitch he’s academically smart and he’s got good footballing ability. He will be one to watch for the future if he keeps progressing well.”