Saturday, January 22, 2011

Hearts v Rangers Preview

There, watching high the least alarms,
Thy rough, rude fortress gleams afar;
Like some bold veteran, grey in arms,
And mark'd with many a seamy scar:
The pond'rous wall and massy bar,
Grim-rising o'er the rugged rock,
Have oft withstood assailing war,
And oft repell'd th' invader's shock

Today’s invaders at Tynecastle might not carry the historical threat of Burns’ Address to Edinburgh.

But how Hearts would like to withstand and repel Rangers in the SPL clash of the day.

Since Hearts' unbeaten run - now stretching to ten SPL games - started to gather pace two clashes have gained ever more importance.

The first arrives at lunchtime when they host the defending champions. The next comes on Wednesday when they travel to Glasgow to face Celtic.

Talk has grown of a sustained challenge to the Old Firm, of Hearts sandwiching themselves between the Glasgow pair or even, whisper it, taking the championship.

I’ve viewed those as unlikely aspirations although, leaving any Capital rivalry or green tinged envy aside, most welcome achievements in the barren landscape of the national game. But I have tempered my pessimism with an addendum: these two games could define Hearts’ season.

Suddenly Hearts would have people believing and maybe, just maybe, the Old Firm looking over their shoulders in disbelief. These two games could provide a springboard to a monumental season and at the very least drive Hearts on towards an Ibrox clash at the start of next month.

That, at least, is the theory. Can Hearts get the job done?

The stage is set. Hearts have momentum and Tynecastle provides the perfect backdrop to the kind of blood and thunder clash that will make people cast down their lunch and take a bit of notice of Scottish football again.

Rangers are now officially deprived of the services of Kenny Miller. Will that impact on the mood of the squad as well as robbing Rangers of this season’s most noticeable goal threat?

Worth remembering that in their last three games Miller has played only once and drew a blank. Rangers still scored eight goals without reply in those matches. As ever with the Ibrox side there are still resources to be drawn on, a thrawness in the face of adversity to rely on.

And even as Rangers remain in their apparent state of penury we can't forget that they signed Nikika Jelavic for big money in the summer. Free of injury now is the time that Walter Smith needs the Croatian to start delivering.

Hearts themselves are contending with injury woes as both Kevin Kyle and Rudi Skacel face late fitness tests. Big players to be missing from big games.

But Hearts were without them against Kilmarnock on Tuesday and came through after going a goal down.

A depth to the squad, ability, belief and a strong manager. Hearts have much going for them this season.

How much? Ninety minutes at Tynecastle today should go some way to telling us. This could be a cracker.

My verdict: Learning's eagle eyes will search in vain for Burns' science in her coy abode in Edinburgh today. But hopefully there will be drama enough to satisfy even a bard's cravings.

A fit Kyle and Skacel would help Hearts’ cause. Even without them they remain a threat, mixing a doughtiness in defence with a dangerous directness and no little cunning. Time for them to prove the challenge is a real one. Guts, passion, goals and a home win should set them up nicely.

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