The question of whether Hearts can push the Old Firm and challenge for a top two finish this season has been raised in post-match interviews with increasing regularity in recent weeks, with Jim Jefferies remaining vague in his answers. That was until last night. His side showed tremendous spirit to come from behind and snatch a victory away to Kilmarnock, keeping them within seven points of leaders Celtic with a game to spare. After the win, courtesy of two goals from substitute Stephen Elliott, Jefferies suggested that the next few games would go a long way to proving whether his side were capable.
Hearts take on Rangers in the lunchtime kick off on Saturday before travelling to Celtic Park on Wednesday night. This is followed by a home match against an in-form St. Johnstone, a side who recently won at Tynecastle, before the re-scheduled match against Rangers at Ibrox a fortnight from now.
Assuming Rangers and Celtic win their other matches (and that they all their fixtures go ahead), Hearts could theoretically be sitting four points ahead of Rangers and one behind Celtic, with Rangers having two matches in-hand, come 10pm on February 2nd.
Should this scenario unfold, it would be foolish not to include Hearts in any dialogue involving SPL title contenders. Even though either Rangers or Celtic have won the title since Aberdeen’s success under Alex Ferguson in 1985, Hearts have been the most recent side to finish above either of the Old Firm, when they finished 2nd above Rangers in 2006. Added to this the fact that during his first stint as Hearts boss, Jefferies pushed the Old Firm most of the way during the 1997/98 season before some poor results in the last quarter of the season ended their title bid, and it suggests that if anyone has the resources to break into the top two, it’s Hearts.
In saying this, there are a few reasons why Hearts supporters should not get too carried away. Jefferies has already admitted that new signings in this transfer window are unlikely (although Lee Wallace recently returned from long-term injury, and Suso Santana and Andy Driver will hopefully follow in the near future, boosting the size of the squad), while a few injuries recently have questioned whether Hearts have the quality in depth for a title challenge.
The omission of Kevin Kyle through injury has shown that Hearts lack a replacement targetman and with him potentially being out for months, Jefferies may have to look at tweaking his system to accommodate this loss. David Obua has replaced Kyle in the last two matches but has shown to be inconsistent at best in this position (he is naturally a wide midfielder, and not too consistent there either) and, lacking the physical presence of Kyle, is unable to trouble two centre-backs on his own and bring the supporting midfielders into play, something that a 4-2-3-1 system, Jefferies preferred formation this season, requires.
This raises the question for Jefferies of whether to stick with the 4-2-3-1, with Obua the focal point of the attack, or else revert to 4-4-2 with two smaller strikers in Elliott and Gary Glen. Rangers will have Madjid Bougherra back from suspension and, with David Weir alongside him, it is unlikely that Obua will be able to dominate any aerial battle. The same problem is likely to arise should he line up against a Celtic centre-back pairing of Daniel Majstorovic and Thomas Rogne. Despite Obua’s height, he is relatively poor in the air, and although Jefferies likes to play a ‘big man’ up top in order to have the option of playing direct balls towards him, he may be better served sacrificing a midfielder for another striker and get the ball played into the strikers’ feet instead.
Rudi Skacel has also been out of action recently. Add to this the fact that David Templeton has hit a poor run of form and Hearts are effectively without their top three scorers – each of the three currently sit on seven league goals for the season so far, 21 of the total 35 goals scored.
Hearts don’t get labelled ‘always the bridesmaid’ for nothing and if I was a betting man I certainly wouldn’t part with my cash to back a Hearts title win, however, if everyone is kept fit once they return, and Kyle’s injury isn’t as bad as is now feared, then Hearts may just be able to push one of the Old Firm into a third place finish for the first time in five years.