These Saturday Rangers are finally back in action, following what has felt like a very long two-week break, in some ways its been even worse than the blind panic and cold sweats that break out when international weeks come around.
We find ourselves heading eastwards down the M8 to face off against Hearts at Tynecastle in the first of five fixtures left in the season and the first in the split. Hearts currently lie sixth in the table with 50 points, a full 16 back from us, they are of course are coming fresh off the back of a comfortable 3-0 victory over Inverness last weekend in the Scottish Cup semi-final. This season we have faced Hearts three times already, winning every match, scoring a total of eight goals in response to Hearts two in the process. The Gorgie side is unlike the other sides in the top sixth in the regard we have found a way to record a victory on each of our meetings and despite Tynecastle being seen as a historically difficult venue Hearts have managed just 8 wins in 17 matches, with 4 draws and 5 defeats. Hearts have recorded nearly as many wins away (6) but with one game fewer played on the road, however, they have lost a considerable amount more with 8 losses and 1 draw when playing away from the comfort of home, something I suspect the narrow and tight Tynecastle pitch, together with the way Hearts set up play a role in. Hearts average 1.15 goals per game in general and a slightly higher 1.24 in home fixtures while showing 1.24 average goals conceded per game ratio and 0.82 when playing at home. Failing to score in 10 games so far this season, 4 of them whilst playing at home. 28.9% of the goals they have scored have come in the time between 30-45 minutes, compared to just 7.9 in 60-90 minutes. As for us, Rangers we average 1.94 goals when playing away from Ibrox and average 1 goal per game conceded.
This game like many before it and still to come in our league will have a large degree of familiarity to it, with the sides having just faced off at Ibrox a few weeks ago, a game that saw us turn in one of our best performances of the season and run out impressive 3-0 winners on the night. In that game, the manager Steven Gerrard made some tweaks to his system, dropping Davis back from the advanced role he had found himself deployed in, along with freeing up Scott Arfield and pushing him into a wider area higher up the park, one that he has excelled in since, scoring an eye-catching hat-trick in the last league match with Motherwell.
Hearts have been quite fluid with their systems in recent matches, starting with a base of a 5-3-2 when facing us at Ibrox, then moving to a 4-1-4-1 for the defeat in the Edinburgh derby and finally a 4-5-1 of sorts last weekend in the cup. No matter what formation Craig Levien elects to go with they will play narrow and compact, something we did a fantastic job of finding gaps and exploiting space in at Ibrox.
This is another game where we will again be without the services of Alfredo Morelos, as he enters his third game in a four-match ban. My view is we have coped well and finally learned how to overcome the absence of our talisman. What has pleased me most in the last couple of matches in the midfield players willingness to make runs beyond Defoe, this has caused our opposition all sort of issues with us reaping the rewards.
Hearts will make this a tight affair they have a habit of doing so, since the 29th of December Hearts have only won or lost two games in the league by more than one goal, one of the games was of course with us a few weeks back and the other a 2-0 win over St Johnstone at home way back on January 26th. The form table makes for poor reading if you're a Hearts supporter, something we can hopefully add to. In the last four home games, the Jambos have won and drawn only one of each, that sees them lie in a second bottom spot only above Dundee, a wider look at the last ten matches sees them climb to eighth, only on goal difference from Hamilton.
Players that will get most of the focus from us heading into the game include the center half John Souttar, a player who at present finds himself heavily linked with us, he is strong in the air winning around 64% of his aerial duels on average, good in the tackle but can be rash on occasion like most players in his position, as for his positional sense it can improve, hopefully if he moves to is its a side we can continue to develop.
A player who I think benefits by playing alongside a more senior figure with bags of experience in Berra, Souttar will line up on the right-hand side, be it a back four or five. At the young age of 22, he is already a full international and has bags of potential.
Haring is a centre half who plays in midfield, a treat from set pieces and has a decent touch on occasion. Djoum will be the player Hearts look for in breaking up our play in midfield, my view is that we will have far too much for Hearts in this area and can once again exploit the gaps, so long as we play at tempo and pass with purpose. Press at the right time, all that will lead to turnovers of the ball, with some luck in advanced areas of the pitch, basically all the things we have witnessed in the last two matches. Defoe will be desperate for goals as always, with it maintaining his good form and scoring record vs the Edinburgh side.
We all know who the main threat is for Hearts, without any shred of doubt it is Uche Ikpeazu, a player who is very strong in the physical sense, good at holding up the ball and is not afraid to attempt a shot, his touch isn't the greatest so that's where we should look to win it back, rather than commit to first time always, judge the situation and goals like we seen at Parkhead will be erased from our play. Live in clearly favours this type of attacker and he is very much in the mould of an ex-Hearts player Mark De Vries, albeit smaller in height.
As for Rangers, I don't anticipate too many changes in the starting eleven for us on Saturday, Haliday, and Worrall may be the only ones recalled in place of Flannagan and Katic. Kent and Morelos are of course still serving out suspensions, Kent in the last of his two-game ban for his swatting away of Scott Brown. The manager will be hoping the players can keep up the performance levels of the last two games especially, together with the strong second half showing we witnessed at Parkhead. In that regards hopefully, the break hasn't come at the wrong time, we were showing signs of finding levels of consistency that have been missing all season, that has to be the aim for the remaining five games.
Formation wise, again I'm expecting very much a case of same again, recent weeks have seen us push Arfield wider and in a more advanced role starting with Hearts at home a few weeks back and continuing with our impressive showing at Fir Park last time out. This has allowed Davis to look far more comfortable sitting at the base with Kamara, the two players have already developed a key understanding of each others game, what has all ingredients a mix of skills, Davis the more tidy one and Kamara always looking to drive forward, with great ability to get out of tight situations or pressure in that area.
Arfield and Defoe's link up is what has been the major factor in our last two games, the players seem to have that telepathic mind when it comes to playing in each other, the passes are played with great weight, either player not having to stop the forward run or break stride. This for me is the key area again. Every game involving Hearts this season has also seen us score from a set play, so don't be too surprised to witness another come the weekend.
As I say I'm expecting a tight, tense matchup here, Hearts will be looking to start on the front foot, they are at home in what always serves as a typically fiery fixture, cup final places are of course up for grabs for the home side. For this game, however, I can't help but think we will emerge, victors, completing a clean sweep of our hosts, our quality will just shine through for me and when you remove Hearts Scottish Cup run, where they have had a pretty easy route their form is not great. I'm anticipating a happy journey home along the motorway for us and will go with a 2-1 victory.
As always, let me know your predictions, thoughts on how you think the game will go.