HEARTS boss Craig Levein has hailed ‘imperious’ John Souttar as the best centre-back in Scotland.
The 22-year-old turned in a superb display for the Jambos in Saturday’s Scottish Cup semi-final, keeping the Inverness attackers in check before popping up at the other end to volley home his first goal of the season in a 3-0 triumph.
Levein, who first worked with the player when Souttar was a schoolboy at Dundee United, reckons his standout showing at Hampden served to underline the progress he has made since making the switch to Tynecastle in January 2016.
Souttar has since won three caps for Scotland and was recently linked with a summer switch to Rangers. And Levein is adamant no other centre-half in the country can touch Hearts’ prize asset.
“For me, he is the best centre-back in Scotland. For sure,” said Levein.
“He can do wonderful things with the ball – his passing on Saturday was fantastic – and is now capable of competing physically with any centre-forward.
“I’ve known John since he was 12 years old and he has just got better and better.
“When he came here from Dundee United, we just needed to give him time – but he has now grown into the player I always hoped he would be.
“His pace is there, he is strong, focused and aggressive. He was imperious against Inverness.”
Levein also praised towering striker Uche Ikpeazu, who shook off fitness doubts prior to the Caley Jags’ clash to turn in a typically all-action showing.
He was rewarded for his efforts when he broke the deadlock at the national stadium early in the second half.
“I thought Uche worked his backside off,” added Levein. “It is a really big pitch at Hampden and he covered every blade of grass.
“Some things came off for him, and others didn’t. But he got his goal in the end and that will keep him happy!”
While the Jambos can now look forward to a mouth-watering showdown against Celtic on May 25, Levein has turned his focus on building momentum ahead of the big day – starting with Saturday’s visit of Rangers.
Levein told Hearts TV: “I don’t want to think too much about the Scottish Cup final now. We’ll have plenty of time for that. Now the priority is to get on a good run of form in the next five games and make sure we are ready when the final comes around.”