ROBBIE NEILSON could hand towering striker Armand Gnanduillet his maiden Hearts start when they visit Ayr United on Friday night.
The 6ft4ins Frenchman has already made a sizeable impact for the Jambos since his January arrival, notching a double from the bench in last Wednesday’s 4-0 triumph over Raith Rovers.
The former Blackpool hit-man followed that up with another bright cameo during Saturday’s 1-0 win over Dunfermline at Tynecastle, forcing a fine sprawling save from Owain Fôn Williams.
And while boss Neilson will handle Gnanduillet with kid gloves, he is in contention for a first start at Somerset Park.
“It was good to get Armand more time in his legs against Dunfermline,” said Neilson. “We just need to be careful with him.
“Going forward, he has now played two games for us – 30 minutes and 35 minutes – so I’d like to think he’s not far off a start [against Ayr].
“But we’ll have a look at him throughout the week.”
Hearts’ narrow victory over the Pars at the weekend saw them notch a second successive shut-out, just 24 hours after goalkeeper Craig Gordon had lamented their lack of clean sheets this term.
And Neilson is adamant that will ultimately be key to a title triumph.
He continued: “The team with the best defensive record nine times out of ten wins the league.
“We spoke at the start of the season and again a couple of weeks ago.
“The forward players get the plaudits but you need that foundation.”
Although the capital club now enjoy a handsome lead at the summit of the Championship, seemingly vindicating pre-season predictions of a procession to promotion, Neilson believes their next two fixtures are pivotal.
After the televised trip to Ayr, Neilson takes his charges to Queen of the South – and he is determined to emerge from two testing away days with an even more handsome lead.
He added: “It’s important that we try to extend that cushion. We know that we’re in a good position at the moment – but there are couple of tough games coming up.
“We go to Ayr United away, which is always a difficult venue, and then Queen of the South away on the astro, so we need to be ready for that.”