Craig Levein insists Hearts cult hero Uche Ikpeazu needs protection from referees after another bruising outing against Celtic

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HEARTS boss Craig Levein has called for Uche Ikpeazu to receive more protection from referees after insisting the hulking striker is unfairly penalised due to his imposing frame.

Levein was full of praise for the 24-year-old following an all-action display in the Jambos’ agonising 2-1 defeat against Celtic on Wednesday evening, with Ikpeazu tirelessly leading the line after the Gorgie outfit were reduced to 10-men.

It was his pressure on Dedryck Boyata that forced Celtic into the error leading to Hearts’ penalty – calmly dispatched by Ollie Bozanic to restore parity – while he successfully held the ball up, pressed throughout and won a swathe of aerial duels.

He was, however, left with a bloody gash on his head following a collision with Boyata and was sporting stitches on Thursday morning.

And Levein is frustrated by the lack of support he is afforded by officials, claiming his man mountain in attack is regularly deemed the aggressor in incidents where he is being fouled.

“Uche is stronger than everybody and I feel sometimes that he gets penalised for being strong,” said Levein.

“Against Celtic, one of them was holding on to him and the other one was heading the ball. It was happening right in front of us.

“That’s the only thing with Uche; he is really good at holding the ball in, holding people off so he gets people hanging on to him. A lot of the time, the pressure is enough for him to go down, but he doesn’t. He wants to compete.

“It’s him against three guys – but apparently he is the bully! It’s frustrating for me and I think it’s frustrating for him.

“It is difficult for the referees because there’s nobody else like him. So they are trying to weigh up which of the three guys is fouling him. I suppose they see a big guy and assume he’s the aggressor and he sometimes gets fouls against him just for being strong.

“But the way he plays is about strength and you can’t penalise somebody for being stronger than his opponent. He’s had quite a lot of that already.”

Ikpeazu has often grown visibly frustrated by the lack of decisions going his way over the course of the campaign but, while Levein readily concedes that ‘everybody has a breaking point’, he has no fear that the player’s ire will boil over.

“He does get frustrated. But he’s not a daft boy, he’s quite clever,” continued Levein. “He knows that those things won’t help in his career. He’s determined to do really well and he thinks about the game a lot.”

With Levein stating that Ikpeazu’s showing against Neil Lennon’s Hoops represented him ‘getting back to his best’ after a four-month injury layoff, talks will continue behind the scenes with a view to finalising a new contract for the Englishman.

He has exceeded all expectations since joining from Cambridge United on a two-year deal last summer and Levein is keen to reward his progress, lauding the way Ikpeazu has embraced the step-up to the Scottish Premiership.

“We’re getting there with the contract,” added Levein. “I’m confident. He’s desperate to stay and I’m desperate to keep him.”

Meanwhile, Ikpeazu’s strike-partner Steven Naismith is a doubt for Monday evening’s Scottish Cup quarter-final against Partick Thistle after a knee complaint forced him off at half-time against Celtic.

Given Naismith has endured serious damage to both knees over the course of his career, Levein will take no chances with the Scotland internationalist and is inclined to trust the veteran’s judgement.

“Naisy said at half-time he was having trouble, it [his knee] was irritating him,” Levein added. “Sometimes when you have cartilage problems, it can just be a tiny little flap that catches and it just settles down and is fine.

“Naisy makes the call. He knows. With younger players, it is more difficult to get the information from them so you try to work out what the right thing to do is.

“Whereas, with Naisy, if he says he is struggling, there is no point in trying to convince him to carry on.

“We will see how he gets on in the next couple of days. I would love to have him available for Monday of course.”

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