Livingston v Hearts preview: Three-at-the-back to remain? | Hearts loanee to sit out | Livi’s strong home record

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Hearts travel to Livingston on Friday evening looking for successive victories in the Ladbrokes Premiership for the first time since September.

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Olly Lee battles Shaun Byrne for possession during the 0-0 draw between the sides earlier this season. Picture: SNS

Olly Lee battles Shaun Byrne for possession during the 0-0 draw between the sides earlier this season. Picture: SNS

The 1-0 victory over Motherwell on Saturday wasn’t pretty by any means but the home side were able to eke out a victory against their Lanarkshire opponents and a similar war of attrition is expected in front of the BT Sport cameras this time around.

Craig Levein revealed some good news earlier in the week as both Uche Ikpeazu and John Souttar are well ahead of schedule in their rehabilitation from long-term injury. However, with the pair still out until January, at least, and Steven Naismith still a week away from fitness, the starting line-up remains depleted.

It’s more than likely the Hearts boss will retain the three-at-the-back system which secured the three points against Motherwell. Levein believes playing Sean Clare and Arnaud Djoum in a central position off striker Steven MacLean gives the latter the support he needs in attack. Meanwhile, all three centre-backs, especially Michael Smith in the sweeper role, impressed in the win.

Livingston themselves like to use three-at-the-back with Declan Gallagher, Alan Lithgow and Craig Halkett all in terrific form this season, so it makes sense to match up man-for-man. The visitors will look to use the movement of the front three to cause some problems for the trio.

Injuries / suspensions / unavailable

Livingston - Defender Ricki Lamie is doubtful after missing the midweek defeat by Aberdeen with a back injury. On-loan Hearts player Bobby Burns will sit out the game under the terms of his loan agreement. Ryan Hardie could feature after staying on the bench on Tuesday amid a phased return from injury but fellow strikers Lee Miller and Rafa De Vita (both knee) are not ready for comebacks yet.

Hearts - The away side have no fresh injury concerns ahead of the short trip to West Lothian. Steven Naismith is still on target to return from knee surgery for the game against Aberdeen on December 22. Jimmy Dunne (ankle), Jamie Brandon (knee), John Souttar (hip) and Uche Ikpeazu (foot) remain on the sidelines.

Magic number

4667 - the number of days that have passed since the last time Hearts travelled to Livingston for a top-flight match. That took place in early March 2006 as a late goal from Roman Bednar earned Graham Rix’s side a 3-2 victory as they kept up their lead over Rangers in the hunt for second place.

Key battle

Choosing two players who are only likely to come into contact with each other at set-pieces should tell you a lot about how this game will likely pan out. Hearts skipper Christophe Berra has picked up where he left off after missing almost four months with a hamstring injury, while Livingston captain Craig Halkett has emerged this season as one of the best centre-backs in the country and is sure to court a lot of interest in the upcoming January transfer window. Both are a threat in the opposing penalty area from set-pieces and put their bodies on the line to halt danger at the other end.

Key stats

Livingston have the biggest discrepancy between home and away results of any team in the league this season. They’ve picked up 20 of their 25 points on their home turf and have conceded just three goals in nine matches. Hearts have won four times in eight games on their travels, but have yet to win away since Steven Naismith went down injured.

Referee

Nick Walsh has taken charge of just one Hearts game this season. That was back in late September when Craig Levein’s side were able to defeat St Johnstone 2-1 thanks to goals from Peter Haring and Jimmy Dunne. This will be the first match this season where Walsh has taken charge of a Livingston fixture.

Possible teams

Livingston (3-5-2): Kelly; Gallagher, Halkett, Lithgow; Cadden, Byrne, Pittman, Jacobs, Lawless; Hardie, Menga. Subs from: McMillan, Saunders, Lawson, Robinson, Kaja, Hamilton, Sibbald, Van Schaik, Stewart.

Hearts (3-4-2-1): Zlamal; Dikamona, Smith, Berra; Godinho, Haring, Bozanic, Mitchell; Djoum, Clare; MacLean. Subs from: Doyle, Garuccio, Hughes, McDonald, Mulraney, Lee, Morrison, Wighton, Cochrane, Amankwaa.