The Hearts midfield dilemma facing Robbie Neilson after Beni Baningime blow

Peter Haring has spent most of the campaign as Robbie Neilson’s back-up central midfielder, but the Austrian will now be a pivotal figure in the Hearts engine room going into the season-defining derby double-header next month.

The big dilemma facing Robbie Neilson is who to play alongside him. With Beni Baningime ruled out for the season and Cammy Devlin up against it with a hamstring injury, Andy Halliday, Aaron McEneff and Toby Sibbick could all come into contention to pair up with Haring in the middle of the park.

But whatever combination Neilson goes with, Hearts will be far less mobile and energetic in the middle of the pitch when the two big matches against Hibs come round.

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Baningime’s cruciate knee injury is a huge blow for the Hearts head coach at a crucial time of the season, particularly with Devlin in a race against time to recover from a hamstring injury.

Peter Haring and Andy Halliday could become the central midfield pairing for Hearts ahead of the derby double-header, but it lacks the mobility provided by Baningime and Devlin

New signings last summer, the pair quickly established a successful partnership at the heart of the team, providing Neilson with a solid spine right down the middle.

The real strength of the partnership has been their work-rate – an ability to cover the ground quickly and recover possession which has allowed Neilson to play two in the centre of midfield when other teams need three.

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In both the 3-4-3 formation used for most of the season and the 4-2-3-1 shape that has been deployed for the last couple of months, Neilson has been able to field an extra forward because of the energy, defensive protection and ball-winning qualities Baningime and Devlin are able to provide.

With both of them out, the head coach may need to think again.

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Haring has been a reliable back-up this season and his performance against Aberdeen at Tynecastle Park a fortnight ago was probably his best of the season.

He retains possession very well and he is physically stronger than both Baningime and Devlin, but he doesn’t have the stamina and speed the other two possess to shut opponents down, make interceptions and win the ball back quickly.

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Halliday doesn’t have that quality either, but his vast experience and versatility means he is probably the best option Neilson has for the two games against Hibs.

Sibbick played in the centre of midfield towards the end of the Livingston game a week and a half ago, but it is unnatural territory for the young English defender.

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McEneff may be able to play in there as a midfield three, but is far too attack-minded to be deployed alongside Haring in a two and has been out of favour for most of the season. When Neilson does play the Irishman, it tends to be further forward or out wide.

Edinburgh derbies, of course, are combative blood-and-thunder affairs. Neilson will take that and the opposition into account when deciding on his midfield combination options.

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Hibs boss Shaun Maloney paired Joe Newell and Jack Doyle-Hayes in midfield in the last derby at Easter Road and that remains the most likely partnership for next month’s Premiership clash at Tynecastle and the Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden the following week.

Sometimes regarded as too similar, both like time on the ball and are neat and tidy in possession. While neither is particularly renowned for their battling qualities, they may be afforded more time on the ball without Baningime and Devlin to hassle them. That could be dangerous for Hearts.

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Neilson will be hoping that what Haring and Halliday lack in terms of mobility – compared to Baningime and Devlin – they can more than make up for in terms of experience and tenacity in the derby hothouse atmosphere, but he may consider deploying McEneff or Sibbick as a third central midfielder to establish control. At the very least, both will have to be available from the bench.

There can be no doubt that Hearts have been weakened considerably by the absence of Baningime and Devlin. Hibs will fancy their chances of exploiting that weakness. Neilson will need a midfield plan B up his sleeve.

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