After their home defeat of Motherwell last week, Hearts tomorrow take on a very ordinary looking Rangers side at Ibrox. If both teams play to the standard they played last week, then Hearts will have a real chance of leaving Glasgow with the three points. Rangers are without several key players due to injury, including captain Barry Ferguson, have sold last season’s SPL Player of the Year Carlos Cuellar, and have failed to replenish the squad as of yet. A whole host of names have been linked with a move to Ibrox; however, they can no longer lure players to the club by promising them Champions League football, or any European football for that matter, at least not until next year.
Rangers began their SPL campaign with an unconvincing 1-0 victory away to Falkirk, in which goalkeeper Allan McGregor saved a penalty to keep the score at 0-0. They are now under pressure from their disgruntled support to deliver the league title and a home defeat this early in the season would surely spark protest against the David Murray, who has grown increasingly unpopular in recent years.
Earlier this week Rangers signed 19-year-old Spanish midfielder Aaron Niguez Esclapez on-loan from Valencia but it is unlikely he will be thrown into the starting lineup. At the time of writing Portsmouth midfielder was discussing personal terms with the Ibrox side, after the English Premiership club accepted a £3m bid. I am not sure whether he will sign in time to go into the squad for tomorrow but he could be the answer to Rangers’ midfield problems. Lee McCulloch has been deployed as a central midfielder in the previous three matches and has not adapted very well.
Other areas where Rangers are weak are in the wings and in central defence. Kyle Lafferty, naturally a striker, started on the left last week and was one of the few plus points in the Rangers attack. He will likely find himself in this position often, at least until players like Chris Burke and Steven Naismith return from injury. DaMarcus Beasley was on the bench for the Falkirk clash and could be brought in on the right, allowing Steven Whittaker to return to right back.
As for the defence, Christian Dailly has not been up to standard so far but could be moved into central midfield to protect the defence, should manager Walter Smith opt for his favoured 4-5-1 formation. Kirk Broadfoot is likely to play alongside Madjid Bougherra in central defence and between Broadfoot’s lack of pace and Bougherra’s inexperience of the SPL, Hearts will surely create some chances tomorrow.
One interesting subplot will be Andrius Velicka appearing against Hearts for the first time since he left the club earlier in the year. The Lithuanian was about to be substituted when he scored the only goal of last week’s game and could find himself on the bench with the return of Kenny Miller. However, if he is a substitute I am sure he will play some part in the fixture.
Despite Rangers’ poor start to the season and selection problems, Hearts’ record at Ibrox doesn’t make for pleasant reading for their supporters. They have failed to win any of their last eight SPL matches at Ibrox, which includes one draw, and have only scored twice in the last six encounters at the venue. You have to go back to May 2004 for the last time Hearts recorded a victory there, when Joe Hamill scored in a 1-0 win.
Yesterday Hearts announced that goalkeeper Marian Kello had signed and will arrive in Edinburgh today, immediately going into the squad for the match on tomorrow. The 25-year-old Slovakian played both legs against Rangers and the more recent Champions League qualifier against Danish side Aalborg. The signing signals the end of the club’s interest in Hungarian goalkeeper Janos Balogh. This is the first of Csaba Laszlo’s signings that will split opinion amongst the Hearts support. Did Csaba personally pick out Kello? Or is this just a sign that things behind the scenes have not changed and that Romanov still has a say on matters, such as signing targets?
Many have made the trip from Kaunas to Tynecastle, others via the Lithuanian city from other clubs, but signing a goalkeeper from Kaunas evokes one memory amongst Hearts fans: Eduardas Kurskis’ fumble in the last few minutes, coincidentally against Rangers at Ibrox, which handed the Glasgow outfit a 2-1 victory.
The acquisition of Danish forward Michael Tullberg was also announced this week. He has signed on a one-year loan deal from Italian outfit Reggina, a club he moved to from Aarhus for a fee of around £800,000 last year but failed to settle there. The transfer fee alone suggests that the 22-year-old possesses some quality, and his age that he may not have reached his full potential yet. Hearts need a target man and the tall, powerful forward may just be the man we are looking for. Unfortunately, he has still to recover from the injury he picked up while on trial during pre-season but begin training again next week. This means that Jamie Mole is likely to retain his place in the starting line up, although he may have done so anyway, after an impressive performance against Motherwell.
Csaba’s first signing for the club, David Obua, will also not be in the squad for the match at Ibrox. After being granted a work permit, Obua and the club are still working on the necessary paperwork to finalise the deal. We will now have to wait at least another week to see the Ugandan international. He seems the most exciting prospect out of the three new boys, after turning down West Ham and Chievo Verona and instead opting for Tynecastle. He also picked up a number of awards at his previous club, South Africa’s Kaiser Chiefs, annual awards ceremony.
I reckon Csaba will stick with the same side that won against Motherwell last week and he has already said to expect the same attacking approach. One player that may have played himself into contention is Saulius Mikoliunas, due to his stunning winner last week after coming on to replace Laryea Kingston. Another change could be Christos Karipidis dropping out for a more natural central defensive midfielder. Eggert Jonsson was an unused substitute last week and Ruben Palazuelos returns from suspension. Robbie Neilson, Mirsad Beslija and Bruno Aguiar join Tullberg on the injury list, as does Gary Glen, although he is back with the under-19s.
Hearts are not without their own frailties. Jason Thomson at right back could struggle up against Kyle Lafferty, while Marius Zaliukas, although possessing the required attributes, is prone to error. He was at fault for the first Motherwell goal last week despite his overall performance being quite impressive.
We are also quite light up front and lack any real height. Mole’s pace will cause Rangers problems but he doesn’t score enough goals. Another who doesn’t score, or for that matter perform, often enough is Audrius Ksanavicius. However, he has scored twice in the last two matches, which is almost as much as last season.
Where we do possess quality is in midfield. Should Michael Stewart turn in a similar performance to last week he will surely win the midfield battle and with two from Mikoliunas, Kingston and Andy Driver playing we have quality on the wings. But this leads me back to the lack of height up front. Kingston is capable of delivering quality crosses and Driver managed to put in a dangerous ball almost every time he received the ball against Motherwell. However, there wasn’t anyone on the end of most of these crosses as they flashed across the face of goal.
The manner in which Hearts perform tomorrow will be more important than the result. A draw would be a great result but there is a feeling of optimism, albeit cautious, around Tynecastle at the moment. There may be no better time to play Rangers and they are definitely there for the taking due to the unrest among the supporters and the pressure this causes. ˜mon the Hearts!!
Possible line ups
Karipidis/Thomson Zaliukas Berra Wallace
Kingston Stewart Karipidis/Palazuelos Driver
Whittaker Broadfoot Bougherra Papac
Beasley Mendes/McCulloch Thomson Lafferty