BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
CRAIG LEVEIN reckons Sunday’s mouth-watering trip to Ibrox will be the acid test for his early league leaders as the irresistible force of Rangers’ home form meets the immovable object of Hearts’ record on the road.
Levein, who dispatched his number two Austin MacPhee to watch the Gers’ stunning Europa League win over Rapid Vienna on Thursday, has been blown away by the Light Blues’ performances at home.
Gerrard’s men have won eight out of nine matches on their own patch this term, scoring 25 goals in the process – restoring the fear factor to their Govan base.
“Rangers are a totally different team at Ibrox and that makes it a very interesting proposition for us,” said Levein. “We have achieved a lot of different things this season and won matches in a lot of different ways, but going away from home to either of the two big clubs in Glasgow is always difficult.
“With Rangers’ home form, that makes it even more challenging. There’s an interesting dynamic to this game, with Rangers having performed so well at home – they have been exemplary – and our away from, for the first time in years, has been excellent too.
“I can’t wait to see how it pans out, I’m as fascinated as everyone else!
“I want to see how these guys do in this sort of game. It’s a chance to test ourselves and play with the confidence that should have been gained by virtue of the performances up until now. I’m really interested and excited.
“We’ve got players who have got a hunger this year I don’t think we have had for a while and they see this Sunday as a challenge, an opportunity to show off their skills and show people as a team we can play well enough to win anywhere in this league.”
As Hearts seek to underline their credentials as shock title challengers, Steven Naismith is likely to be a key figure as he steps out in familiar surroundings.
The 32-year-old, who won six major honours during five years at Ibrox, has been revitalised for club AND country since returning to Gorgie for a second loan stint from Norwich, scoring 10 goals in all competitions and emerging as a giant in the Jambos dressing room.
“I expect a lot from Steven [Naismith] every week – and he doesn’t let me down,” lauded Levein. “He’s a real character and a really genuine person, which helps in the dressing room. When Naisy gives you a bollocking for something, they know he’s right 99 times out of 100.
“So he carries a lot of authority and respect and he’s in a good place to be giving people help and advice. The more experience our players get the less likely they are to be fazed by anything, really.
“We have the likes of John Souttar stepping forward and playing international football now and the more often you play in big matches the easier it is to go to places like Ibrox.”
Naismith’s erstwhile strike-partner at Hearts, Kyle Lafferty, could return to the Gers side tomorrow after sitting out the breathless triumph over Rapid – the first time he has faced the Jambos since completing his protracted switch to Glasgow.
Lafferty, who notched 20 goals for the men in maroon, made no secret of his desire to embark on a second stint with his boyhood heroes, while Hearts were ultimately satisfied with the £400,000 fee they banked.
“I am looking forward to seeing him, he’s a great character,” continued Levein. “I think he’ll play because [Alfredo] Morelos played on Thursday and I think they’ll go back to playing three up top. We know what to expect from Kyle so we’ll see how it goes.”
While Levein prepares for the challenge posed by Lafferty, the man who has ably filled the Northern Irishman’s boots in Gorgie, Uche Ikpeazu, is battling to be fit for the journey to Govan.
However, Ikpeazu has been absent since suffering a foot injury in a 1-0 win over Motherwell at Fir Park a fortnight ago and, after a few light sessions this week, a decision on his availability is likely to be made this morning.
“Uche [Ikpeazu] is improving, whether he will be ready for Sunday, I don’t know,” said the former Scotland boss. “I am hopeful he can get a full training session in today but, if he doesn’t, then it’s highly unlikely he’ll be available for Rangers.”