We look at five key factors that could influence tonight’s top-of-the-table showdown between Rangers and Hearts.
• Hearts’ air of authority
Unbeaten in 20 league matches, 13 points clear at the top of the table, and having beaten Rangers both times the two teams have met this season, Hearts will arrive at Ibrox bursting with confidence. They have shown an ability to win both handsomely and ugly this season, and have the knowledge that even if they are not at their fluent best, they still have enough in their armoury to go home with three points.
• Rangers’ woes
The Ibrox club remain in a state of turmoil and developments this week, with Mike Ashley’s crisis loan of £10m causing particular consternation, have merely exacerbated the sense of acrimony at the club. Protests are planned against the board at tonight’s match, which could have a distracting effect on Kenny McDowall’s players. If Rangers were to fall behind, support from a fanbase disillusioned by events on and off the park is unlikely to be particularly forthcoming. Hearts are perfectly equipped to capitalise on any sense of angst in the home ranks.
Rangers need the win more than Hearts do and, with home advantage, the Ibrox side will be expected to enjoy the lion’s share of the pressure. However, this could play into Hearts’ hands as, in Jamie Walker and Sam Nicholson, they have two pacey wingers who are capable of counter-attacking to devastating effect. Both players have been in fine form in recent matches, and also carry a goal threat. If they’re able to get on the ball, the homegrown youngsters could cause havoc for the Rangers defence.
• Zeefuik v McCulloch
Genero Zeefuik wasted no time in endearing himself to the Hearts support with a double and an impressive performance on his debut at Dumbarton last weekend. However, the imposing Dutchman will face an altogether more formidable task tonight when he is asked to lead the line at Ibrox. Rangers captain Lee McCulloch will not be fazed by coming up against the big Dutchman and is equipped to cope with the physical test the Hearts forward is likely to provide. Tonight’s match will offer a truer gauge of what level the former Ajax and PSV Eindhoven striker is currently able to operate at, although his pedigree would suggest he has the quality to make a difference to such a high-stakes match.
• Grudges and paper talk
Both sets of players are likely to take to the field feeling the need a prove a point or two. Rangers’ players have been subjected to torrents of criticism from all quarters for what has been considered a dismal campaign so far and, as evidenced by Fraser Aird’s comments this week, they will be determined to show that they are not 13 points inferior to Hearts in terms of squad quality. Brad McKay, the Hearts defender, ridiculed Aird on Twitter for suggesting that Rangers have better players than the Jambos, so the Tynecastle side will be desperate to make a mockery of the winger’s claims for the third time this season. In addition, the fallout from the last match between the two sides in November has helped add some extra needle to tonight’s showdown, after Hearts accused Rangers of heavy-handed tactics, and Ibrox striker Jon Daly responded by claiming Robbie Neilson’s players had gone down too easily. Pent-up aggression will have to be channelled in the correct manner, as any loss of discipline could prove costly, as Rangers’ Steven Smith found to his cost when his red card paved the way for a 2-0 Hearts win at Tynecastle in November.