Talking point: Rangers' visit could be a nightmare - or the perfect tonic for Hearts

Craig Levein shakes hands with his players as they make their way off the park following the defeat to St Mirren.
Craig Levein shakes hands with his players as they make their way off the park following the defeat to St Mirren.
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Three defeats in a row. Actually, wait, it's worse. Five games without a win. No, wait, it's even worse than that. Five games without a single goal scored: the longest goalless run Hearts have had in two decades. That's how bad things have got in Gorgie, and it's happened very quickly.

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The last scoreless run this long occurred in the 1998/99 season and there are similarities to be made between that side and this one. With Stephane Adam, Neil McCann and Colin Cameron in their ranks, not to mention the unconventional yet effective skills of Jim Hamilton, Hearts were an attacking powerhouse as they pushed the Old Firm in the title race and got their hands on the Scottish Cup.

Then things fell apart. After losing Colin Cameron to a mysterious injury - which was later fixed by some dental work - the club then sold McCann to Rangers. Without two of their most creative players, Jim Jefferies' side struggled to create opportunities for the front two, whose form nosedived. The rest of the team went with it.

This season we've been given another startling reminder of the fragile nature of football success. With Steven Naismith and Uche Ikpeazu in the team, Hearts legitimately looked like the strongest starting XI in the league through the first couple of months. Without them it's all come crashing down.

That 1998/99 team were nearly relegated. Thankfully for the current squad, that's not going to happen. Naismith should be back this month and his influence alone should put Craig Levein's men firmly back on the right path as they look to secure a return to European football. But as the Hearts manager says himself, there are still plenty of points to play for before the veteran striker returns, and things need to improve.

Given the current malaise, there could scarcely be a worse upcoming opponent than Rangers. While they're far from perfect themselves, they've won three consecutive league games and, if they catch their hosts in a performance close to the one witnessed at St Mirren, they can easily rack up the goals next Sunday. Such a defeat suffered by an already fragile unit could have disastrous consequences for the collective confidence.

On the other hand, the various factors surrounding the game could make it the perfect storm for Hearts to come out of their funk.

One of the biggest problems in the last couple of weeks has been an inability to play their way through a packed defence. The guile has been severely lacking and chances have been at a premium. Confidence is low with the forward players thinking too much in possession and failing to react on instinct, as they were earlier in the campaign. Intensity levels have also been below par.

That could all change against Rangers. The home crowd will be right behind the players, who should be raring to go from the off. The burden of the last month can be lifted, even slightly, given the nature of the opponent and the atmosphere inside the ground. Get an early goal and everything changes.

Even if they don't, if they're set up to keep it tight and hit Steven Gerrard's men on the counter then there's still a recipe for success there. This writer has previously called for Demetri Mitchell and Callumn Morrison to play as two supporting wingers in a 4-2-3-1, to take advantage of Steven MacLean's link play. Get the veteran playing through balls into the channels, just like Steven Fletcher does for Scotland. To be fair to the manager, this is difficult to do against the likes of Kilmarnock and St Mirren, because there isn't a lot of space to work with. Rangers, on the other hand, should play with a high line.

Prior to the dire run in 1998/99, Celtic came to Tynecastle on a Sunday evening in front of the Sky Sports cameras. Even without Cameron and McCann, with the latter just about to complete his move to Ibrox, the hosts were tremendous. They steamrolled over their visitors with Adam netting a double en route to a 2-1 win that could have been a lot more comfortable. It was the same team that would endure months of struggles, but on that night everything came together and they were excellent.

This side will need to do likewise next week. Otherwise, who knows what the mental state of the squad will be when Naismith does finally return.