Hearts will be looking to snap a four-game winless streak when they take on St Mirren at The Simple Digital Arena on Saturday afternoon (kick-off 3pm) in the Ladbrokes Premiership.
• READ MORE: Sean Clare set to get an extended run in Hearts team
Craig Levein’s men have not tasted victory since October 23 when they defeated Dundee 3-0 at Dens Park, losing three times and drawing once in the intervening period without scoring a goal.
They are, however, presented with struggling opposition in their first league match since the international break, with second-bottom St Mirren without a victory since the opening day of the season.
Levein confirmed that it is very likely midfielder Sean Clare will start the match. The September signing has still to find his peak fitness having picked up an injury back in March and the Jambos manager has been reluctant to overplay him.
Levein said: “He just needs to play now and he’s at the point I’m ready to start him. He’s not a player I know particularly well, like Steven Naismith and Christophe Berra, so I don’t want to throw him in too early after injury and cause him to suffer from confidence issues. He’s still a young player who hasn’t had a lot of football in his life so I want to find the best way of bringing him into the team. As well as getting him up to full speed, I want him to be able to help and contribute to victories.”
It could lead to a formation change from the 1-0 defeat by Kilmarnock - Hearts’ last match - where the team lined up in a 4-4-2 system with Craig Wighton joining Steven MacLean in attack.
The versatile Clare can play wide or through the centre. He may use his mobility to support MacLean from deep or play on the left with Arnaud Djoum moved into the middle.
Ben Garuccio played at left-back against Killie and is vying with Demetri Mitchell to fulfil that role in Paisley, although the latter could be utilised on the wing.
St Mirren will have a new goalkeeper between the sticks. Danny Rogers, on loan from Aberdeen, will take over from Craig Samson, who retired to become Sunderland’s goalkeeping coach. Meanwhile, Ryan Edwards won’t feature since he is on loan from Hearts and cannot play against his parent club.
Injuries / suspensions / unavailable
St Mirren - In addition to Edwards’ absence, defender Gary MacKenzie (achilles) is out until after Christmas, but former Jambo and left-back Adam Eckersley (achilles) returned to training last month and comes into contention for a place in the matchday squad.
Hearts - Craig Levein is still without full-back Jamie Brandon (knee), centre-half John Souttar (hip) and forwards Uche Ikpeazu (foot) and Steven Naismith (knee). Captain Christophe Berra is back in training after a hamstring tear, but will not feature against St Mirren, with the clash against Rangers on December 2 a more realistic target. Defensive midfielder Peter Haring continues to play through a hernia problem.
Magic number - 10
The number of goals Rudi Skacel scored against the Buddies in just six appearances. It includes two hat-tricks, one of which came in a 5-2 win where Hearts played with ten men for the majority of the match.
Once again, Steven MacLean will be asked to do a lot of the grunt work in attack. He will come up against former English Premier League defender Anton Ferdinand. MacLean will required all of his nous to get Hearts up the pitch by being the focal point. If Hearts can get bodies running off and around him, then they could swarm St Mirren’s backline.
Hearts have not won at St Mirren since March 2012. That victory was en route to the club’s triumphant Scottish Cup success. Goals from Skacel and Jamie Hamill in the quarter-final replay set up a semi-final clash with Celtic.
No team has given up more shots in the league this season than St Mirren’s 812.
Craig Thomson will oversee Saturday’s encounter.
It will be his 16th match of the season, although Thomson will be taking charge of his first St Mirren game of the campaign and only his second Hearts fixture having refereed the club’s 3-0 win at Dundee in October.
St Mirren (3-1-4-2): Rogers; Hodson, Jones, Ferdinand, Erhahon; P McGinn, McShane, Magennis, S McGinn, Hammill; Jackson. Subs from: Smith, Mullen, Willock, Baird, Cooke, Heaton, Flynn, Kirkpatrick, MacPherson, Jamieson, Lyness, Kpekawa.
Hearts (4-2-3-1): Zlamal; Smith, Dikamona, Dunne, Mitchell; Lee, Haring; Morrison Djoum, Clare; MacLean. Subs from: Doyle, Godinho, Hughes, Garuccio, Bozanic, McDonald, Mulraney, Wighton, Cochrane, Amankwaa.
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