Hearts travel to Ibrox on Sunday for the biggest game of the season in the Ladbrokes Premiership so far.
The clash between Craig Levein’s league leaders and Steven Gerrard’s men is mouthwatering with an abundance of intrigue. Even more so due to it not being televised.
Hearts have the chance to put 11 points between them and their opponents but the will need to claim their first win in Govan since Osman Sow’s late, late winner back in 2014 when the teams met in the opening game of the Championship.
Rangers meanwhile come into the game on the back of a mixed week. They lost at Livingston last Sunday in league but responded with a 3-1 win over Rapid Vienna in front of a raucous Ibrox crowd on Thursday. The three pints lifted them to the top of Group G and it is the reason the game is a Sunday 3pm kick-off.
Hearts too have had a hiccup against Livingston but showed a strong response from the draw by progressing to the Betfred Cup semi-finals, followed a league victory over St Johnstone to maintain their five point lead at the top of the division.
The Jambos have already defeated Celtic this season and will be confident of doing a Glasgow double due to the start of the season which has seen them go 13 games unbeaten in all competitions.
They may have to do it without Uche Ikpeazu. The star striker has missed the last three matches due to the foot injury picked up in a challenge with Motherwell goalkeeper Trevor Carson, and there will be a late decision over his inclusion with the player only returning to some sort of training on Friday.
His return would provide a huge boost to the Hearts team with his unique style capable of unnerving the Rangers backline and bringing Hearts up the pitch if the home side exert plenty of pressure which they have done in their home matches this season.
Callumn Morrison is the only other regular who has had injury issues but will make the game. It still comes too soon for Sean Clare and Marcus Godinho.
Levein said about Clare: “Sean is improving all the time. He had an operation in March and has done a lot of work on his own, but I need to get him back into the daily hustle and bustle of training routines, and give him time to find confidence that his injury has recovered sufficiently for the rigours of day-to-day training.
“We are getting to that point. He has been good in training. However, I only want to put him in when he is ready. There is a lot of expectation surrounding him and I’ve spoken very highly of him, and first impressions are important, so I only want him to play when he’s ready.”
Levein may bring Garuccio back in with Mitchell in front for greater protection. If Uche is fit the manager may be persuaded to play him as a lone striker with Steven Naismith in support. Alternatively, Ikpeazu could be used as an impact sub if Hearts are trailing or the game is tight towards the end.
Rangers have come through 90 minutes against Rapid in Europe and there has been calls among the Rangers support to play the same starting XI having tinkered against Livingston, which would mean no start for former Jambo Kyle Lafferty.
Key midfielder Ryan Jack is expected to join rejoin the squad but there would be no room for him if Gerrard sticks with the same XI.
Rangers have been impressive in Europe but inconsistent in the league, failing to win away from home. However, they have been faultless in their home domestic matches.
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Injuries / suspensions / unavailable
Hearts - A late decision will be made on Uche Ikpeazu after the striker missed three games with a foot knock and the club protected the injury in the early part of the week. Callumn Morrison should shake off a minor knee problem but Sean Clare and Marcus Godinho are still not ready to feature following summer surgery. Christophe Berra (hamstring) and Jamie Brandon (knee) remain sidelined.
Rangers - Ryan Jack is expected to rejoin Steven Gerrard’s squad having not featured since straining a calf while on Scotland duty last month. Long-term knee injury victim Jamie Murphy remains out while Lee Wallace faces another week or so on the sidelines with a groin injury.
4 - Hearts are attempting to win four away games in a row for the first time since the 2010-2011 season when Jim Jefferies men won seven in a row.
There is a good argument to be made that John Souttar has been the best defender in Scotland this season; form he has carried into the international arena. The 21-year-old has been imperious in the absence of Christophe Berra, taking the captain’s armband and leading. He will come up against the biggest nuisance in Alfredo Morelos. The Colombian has netted ten goals in 18 games this season. The combustible forward will use his physicality and back-in to Souttar. He can link play and knows where the back of the net is. Souttar’s cool head can succeed.
There have been 12 fixtures played between Hearts and Rangers since they first met in the Championship in 2014. Of those dozen games there has only been two away wins - Hearts in 2014 and Rangers last October. Steven Naismith, who scored 33 goals in 140 appearances for Rangers, is one away from hitting ten goals in all competitions this season for Hearts.
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Hearts have lost 13 of the 25 matches John Beaton has been in charge of. He has only refereed Celtic and Kilmarnock on more occasions. Beaton was in charge when he awarded Hearts a penalty against Celtic which the Glasgow side claimed was a dive. The referee, however, would book Walker for an alleged dive against Rangers after the Celtic incident. A yellow which was later overturned.
Hearts (4-4-1-1): Zlamal; Smith, Souttar, Dunne, Garuccio; Morrison, Lee, Haring, Mitchell; Naismith; Ikpeazu. Subs from: Bozanic, McDonald, Mulraney, MacLean, Wighton, Cochrane, Djoum, Dikamona, Amankwaa, Doyle.
Rangers (4-3-3): McGregor; Tavernier, Goldson, Worrall, Barisic; Jack, Arfield, Coulibaly; Kent, Morelos, Candeias. Subs from: Flanagan, Katic, Dorrans, Halliday, Ross McCrorie, Ejaria, Lafferty, Middleton, Sadiq, Palmer, Thomson, Kelly, Foderingham, Robby McCrorie.
Keep up to date with all the pre-match news, the game as it happens, plus reaction, comment and analysis post-match on the Edinburgh Evening News.
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