Rangers fans won't need reminded of the last time we visited Tynecastle. Almost exactly two months to the day, we put in arguably our worst performance of the season to go down 0-2 in Edinburgh. Although we had late opportunities to sneak a goal or two and had one controversially disallowed shortly after half-time, we simply didn't turn up for the vast majority of the game. Our midfield - in particular - was woeful whilst James Tavernier was posted missing for both goals.
The post mortem was immediate and one of understandable panic given we we played Aberdeen just a few days later and Hearts again the following weekend. Add in a few tough away matches and the visit of Celtic, suddenly the imperative nature of Europa League qualification was looking under threat. Meanwhile, many players were severely criticised and the manager also under the cosh from fans and in the media.
Thankfully the reaction was a positive one. Aberdeen and Hearts were duly comfortably dispatched and, an unfortunate defeat at home to Celtic aside, our form has been reasonable since - even if we lost avoidable goals away to Hamilton and St Johnstone. As recently as last Saturday, despite a daft red card for Michael O'Halloran inside the first five minutes, the team showed good character to put in a fine second half display and secure a solid victory at Motherwell. This means we're now 11 points ahead of Hearts and still in second place ahead of Aberdeen in the battle for European football. However, the Dons' game in hand and superior goal difference tells us, it's far from job done.
In that sense, it was good to see the manager add to his squad during the January window with only the ineffectual Matt Crooks and frustrated Matt Gilks moving on. Jon Toral and Emerson Hyndman have come in to strengthen what has often been a struggling midfield and Jak Alnwick will provide competition for the impressive Wes Foderingham. Some fans are frustrated that we've been unable to add a new defender or striker but, quite simply, unless we moved on fringe players then this was always unlikely in terms of budget. I'd also argue our midfield was the priority as we were struggling in possession and failing to create chances or protect the defence.
However, our relative transfer inactivity has resulted in some mischief-making in the media over the manager's own expectations but as much as some journalists earn their cash by sowing the seeds of doubt, you can view Mark Warburton's comments for yourself in the press conference video below. Yes, I'm sure the manager is looking for a better squad but he didn't come into this job with his eyes shut so will appreciate the budgetary restrictions upon him. He'll also be well aware it was he who signed guys like O'Halloran and Senderos who may not be providing the kind of quality he hoped for. As such it's up to him to address that with the players he has and deliver a suitable league (and cup) finish to strengthen his argument for decent funds come the summer.
With that in mind, Warburton will have been heartened by his team's display last Saturday. Not only did his first XI play well enough, his subs also came on to good effect. Indeed, the only disappointment would have been we didn't score more goals to reflect the possession and chances we did have. Nevertheless, we did play well - as did Craig Samson in the home side's goal.
As such, I wouldn't expect many changes to the team tonight. The manager has said Lee Hodson and Danny Wilson are fit again while Joe Garner may also be keen to feature - from the bench at least as he recovers from a recent shoulder injury. With Michael O'Halloran suspended for the next two games that certainly opens up a spot on the right side of our attack so arguably the only decision for the manager tonight is who to play there. In fact, there's an argument for five or six different players to claim that position so well worthy of discussion.
If the manager fancied keeping it tight, he could recall Lee Hodson to right back and push Tav into a more offensive position. He could also play the moderate card and start Harry Forrester who'd provide a more creative outlet (but who also started there in November and struggled). Perhaps most likely though is to maintain our attacking threat and start Martyn Waghorn (or Joe Dodoo) to help support the in-form Kenny Miller. Finally, Jon Toral could start wider with Josh Windass or Jason Holt brought back in centrally to match the undoubted energy Hearts will have in the engine room.
No matter what team is selected, tonight's game is a chance for the players and manager to set the record (or should that be the Record?) straight on where they stand moving forward. Sure, as the November fixture displayed, no season is necessarily dictated by a one-off result but this is an opportunity to not only show what we're capable of but to sound the death knell on Hearts' chances for a top three position. As such, it's games like these that form the character of players and coaches. Ultimately, that's where they'll be judged and the jury will always be eager to deliver their opinion. Let's hope it's a positive one tonight!
Possible team (4-3-3):
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