Champions to provide acid test for Hearts
By Roddy Forsyth
Bring them on. That was the pugnacious message from both camps on the eve of a delectable fixture between Heart of Midlothian and Rangers, which matches Scotland's perfect league leaders with the country's bruised champions.
In the maroon corner are George Burley's players, with seven straight league victories and bidding for one more to secure their best start in 91 years.
"We have no fear of this game," said the Hearts captain, Steven Pressley. "We don't doubt that we can get a good result against them. If you win seven games on the trot in the SPL, you must believe you can continue that run."
In the blue corner are Alex McLeish's title holders, menacing but vulnerable. They have passed all the important examinations in the Champions League, and beaten Celtic. Yet they have lacked conviction on other occasions, including trailing Clyde in the later stages of Tuesday's CIS Cup tie at Ibrox, before prevailing in extra time.
True, Hearts lost their CIS Cup outing to Livingston, but the impression is that McLeish does not yet know absolutely his ideal line-up while George Burley is quite certain of his.
If so, the situation is, in part, the consequence of a disparity in resources between the clubs. Hearts were down to a squad of 16 for the trip to Almondvale, where they had won with ease in the league 10 days previously, and the absence of the first-choice attacking partnership of Roman Bednar and Edgar Jankauskas simply confirmed that they are required starters today.
Likewise, Takis Fyssas and Julien Brellier have been necessary components of Hearts' runaway charge to the top and will be given fitness tests this morning to ensure that they have overcome injuries sustained against Livingston.
While it is a case of needs must at Tynecastle, McLeish is still mixing and matching somewhat, although he pointed out yesterday that he had altered his team against Clyde to give some players game practice.
"We have done better in the bigger games this season and I hope that will be significant against Hearts. There is no doubt that going 11 points behind would put a lot of pressure on us in catching up, but we are not thinking about that.
"We are concentrated on reducing the gap to five points, but the league is not won in September. Hearts are a good side and in Rudi Skacel (who has scored in every league game so far) they have a player who is an incredible success story.
"He's a left back, cum midfield player, turned striker. He's flying. However, when you are on an unbeaten run you sometimes wonder when you might drop points and we want to put those doubts in Hearts' minds. We are at full strength. I have made my mind up on the selection and we know what we are going to do in the game."
Hearts, meanwhile, have savoured the abundance of life at the top table and have an appetite for more. They have been most welcome guests on their travels because they now arrive with such a substantial retinue of retainers that they play repeatedly before capacity crowds.
A win today would be a mighty affirmation of the stated desire of their owner, the Lithuanian banker, Vladimir Romanov - Scotland's equivalent of Roman Abramovich - to establish a third force to challenge the Old Firm, although his manager continues to try to impose some sort of perspective on the euphoric Tynecastle support.
"I would rather be in our position than Rangers', but absolutely nothing will be decided in this game,'' said Burley. "Anyway, Rangers are favourites to win the league. They are the champions, after all, and they have quality players - look at their win over Porto last week."
Burley, too, has his totemic individuals. Aside from Skacel, the rise of Craig Gordon has been notable. Gordon, now Scotland's first choice goalkeeper, plays his 100th consecutive game this afternoon and Burley said: "The fact that he is one of the top keepers in Britain, at 22, speaks volumes because keepers don't usually reach their peak until nearer 30."
When these sides met in April, Hearts lost 2-1 in explosive circumstances when Rangers were awarded a last minute penalty and Saulius Mikoliunias was red carded twice for confrontations with the officials.
Pyrotechnics will precede today's 12.30pm kickoff - and Pressley laid down a formula to gratify viewers: "It will be an incredibly furious pace. It will be competitive - we don't believe anyone should leave Tynecastle with points - and it will be aggressive. But what we want is controlled aggression."
Taken from telegraph.co.uk