The absence of Sean Clare and Peter Haring left Hearts looking light in midfield against Rangers on Saturday - and the Jambos need to find a plan B as soon as possible, writes Patrick McPartlin
Since his arrival from SV Ried last summer, Peter Haring has been something of a revelation. Signed as a centre-back, the 25-year-old has established himself as an all-action midfielder, and something of a fans’ favourite. Even in the Edinburgh derby defeat to Hibs earlier this month, Haring was the standout player in maroon by some distance and his absence was keenly felt against Rangers.
Sean Clare, meanwhile, took a bit of time to get going but appears to have settled into the team and has chipped in with six goals this term. He scored in consecutive matches to help Hearts reach the Scottish Cup final and were it not for a bout of illness, would have featured against Rangers.
It’s impossible to say whether the presence of the duo would have had a vast impact on the end result of yesterday’s match. However, Hearts look like a more cohesive unit - especially in midfield - when at least one of them, never mind both, are available.
Haring’s height and power make him an attacking threat at set-pieces as well as giving the defence extra protection, while Clare’s athleticism and willingness to drive Hearts forward was sorely missed in yesterday’s defeat.
That Rangers’ first two goals came from Hearts players being dispossessed in midfield will have alarmed Levein. It’s hard to imagine Haring or Clare losing the ball as easily in midfield and, if they did, the smart money would be on them winning it back.
Speaking after the match, Levein admitted that he didn’t know if Haring would be fit for the cup final, casting doubt on the Austrian being fit for next week’s Edinburgh derby or Hearts’ other remaining league fixtures. Haring will almost certainly be wrapped in cotton wool between now and May 25 in the hope he can at least play some part in the cup final.
Clare is likely to be fit for a return next week, which will be of some comfort to Levein, who hasn’t had his injury worries to seek this term - especially in midfield.
Yesterday’s display went some way to confirming that Hearts need a plan B in midfield. Arnaud Djoum has his moments but Oliver Bozanic and Olly Lee were ineffectual for large parts of the game. The Australian midfielder had been one of the side’s better performers before he was dispossessed and Rangers scored their second, effectively killing the game.
Hearts play Hibs, Kilmarnock, Aberdeen and Celtic (twice) before the season ends. The aforementioned teams all have fairly settled midfield combinations and on their day would have little trouble dealing with the same Jambos midfield that lined up against Rangers.
Levein and his coaching staff will want to identify a combination in the middle of the park that can provide protection for the defence, win the midfield battle, and drive the side forwards. Without Haring and possibly Clare, that is a tall order.
Djoum is capable of match-winning displays but the Cameroonian midfielder was posted missing at times against Rangers.
Harry Cochrane had some nice touches when he replaced Olly Lee but the teenager has struggled with a series of injuries this term and Levein is anxious not to ask too much of him too soon.
Bozanic started strongly against Rangers, playing in Uche Ikpeazu for a rare Hearts chance in the first half but after fluffing his lines to gift Rangers their second goal, he faded.
Lee’s thundering derby winner at Easter Road in December now seems like a distant memory. The former Luton Town man has popped up with another goal and four assists since, but remains a polarising figure with the support.
If Hearts are to have any hope of overhauling rivals Hibs, securing a European spot or even just engineering a much-needed morale boost ahead of the cup final, it’s vital that management work something out as soon as possible and players step up to make it happen.