Hearts manager Craig Levein admits captain Christophe Berra and Steven Naismith are on course to make an earlier than expected return from injury, and has implored his players to ‘hang in there’ until their debilitating personnel crisis eases.
The Ladbrokes Premiership leaders have been weakened by a series of problems to influential players Berra, Naismith, John Souttar and Uche Ikpeazu, and have had their lead at the summit pared down to one point by Celtic, who have a game in hand.
Defender Berra was initially ruled out for up to six months with a hamstring issue he sustained in August, while Souttar and Ikpeazu were told in October that they faced five months on the sidelines with a hip and foot problem respectively.
Scotland striker Steven Naismith then joined them in the treatment room after sustaining a knee injury, which required an operation, in the October 28 Betfred Cup semi-final loss to Celtic, ruling the 32-year-old out for up to eight weeks.
However, as Hearts attempt to respond from last weekend’s 5-0 thrashing at Celtic Park when they host Kilmarnock tomorrow, Levein is hoping to have Berra and Naismith available for part of their seven-game schedule in December.
He said: “Christophe is doing really well, he has pencilled in the Rangers game (on December 2) – he must be picking the team for that game.
“I don’t know if that’s doable but he seems to be very positive.
“He has been outside doing a lot of work, running and stuff, and he is definitely improving and there has been a big leap forward.
“We were told six to eight weeks with Naisy but I’m hoping it’s nearer the six weeks so we can get him back for three or four matches before the break as well. I don’t think John or Uche will be ready before the winter break.
“But it will be a boost having Christophe and Naisy back in December if that’s the case.”
Hearts have felt the absence of the quartet in a run of three winless matches, with an incident-packed goal-less draw at home to Hibernian being sandwiched by the losses to Celtic.
Former Scotland manager Levein, however, has asked his players to show their resilience in the upcoming games.
He added: “If we can keep winning games and putting points on the board then we’re fine. We just need to hang in there until we get them all back.
“We’re going through a difficult period because we’re missing a lot of good players.
“No matter how good our squad is, we don’t have the same level of quality underneath those we’re missing.
“It’s natural there is some level of drop off. The key for me is to keep our levels high enough that we can still win matches and keep us in contention at the top of the league.
“We played Celtic twice away from home and Hibs at home – difficult at any period – with no strikers.
“Steven Naismith’s absence will be felt in every match but we come into a run of fixtures that are not quite as tough as we faced recently.
“We’ve got Steven MacLean back and Craig Wighton and Sean Clare are getting up to speed, so I’m not wondering what the earth I’m going to do.”