Hearts v Rangers: Ally McCoist's side cannot afford to lose

By Richard WilsonBBC Scotland
Lee Wallace breaks forward for Rangers
Hearts beat Rangers 2-1 at Ibrox on the opening day of the Championship season

The anticipation of Rangers' visit to Tynecastle is in itself a significant event.

Few games this season have drawn such interest or intrigue, and even though it is not yet December, there is a sense of the game being significant in terms of the outcome of the Championship.

Hearts hold the advantage. It is their home game, they have already defeated Rangers at Ibrox and they currently lead their title rivals by six points.

Progress has seemed steady and attainable at Tynecastle, while Rangers have lurched into periods of inconsistency. Perception can be a fragile guide at times, though, since the form of their past six games shows they have both won five and drawn one, with Rangers having scored 18 goals and Hearts 13.

They are unquestionably the two most effective teams in the division, yet it is Hearts who carry the most expectation into the game.

Rangers have appeared vulnerable at times this season, drawing both home and away against Alloa, and losing to Hibernian.

Rangers draw with Alloa
Rangers players were left frustrated after drawing at home to Alloa in the Championship

The latter was a particularly chastening outcome, because the stated intention of Ally McCoist and his players had been to try to apply some psychological pressure to Hearts, who were facing Falkirk later in the day.

Instead, Robbie Neilson's side went into that match knowing a victory would increase their lead, and that prospect focused rather than addled the players' minds.

In terms of psychological strength, Hearts appear unbowed.

They trailed at Easter Road to Hibs but still managed to rescue a point. There have often been late interventions in games - they have scored nine times in the final 10 minutes of matches this season - but that is not coincidental.

Neilson's players often carry out two or even three training sessions a day, and while many of them are tactical reviews or non-physical work, the team's fitness is geared to the players being strong in the final stages of matches.

The intention at Tynecastle this summer was to combine the youthful promise of players such as Dale Carrick, Billy King, Sam Nicholson and Kevin McHattie with power and experience.

The midfield guile, edge and nous is provided by Morgaro Gomis and Prince Buaben, while Neil Alexander, the former Rangers goalkeeper, is the wily figure in the backline. The attempt has been to play progressive football, and on five occasions in the league this term Hearts have scored four goals or more.

Scottish Championship table - top two

Before last weekend's victory over Falkirk, supporters felt that the team had lost some of its edge.

They needed a last-ditch goal at Easter Road and then seemed overwhelmed by the emotional resonance of the game at Tynecastle against Raith Rovers, which fell on Remembrance Weekend and prompted recognition of the sacrifices made by McCrae's Battalion - which drew players from both clubs - in the First World War.

Rangers have managed two periods of consistency, winning four league games in a row after their opening-day loss to Hearts, and then a five-game streak after their defeat by Hibs. The fact that both losses came at Ibrox, where the team will feel it should be most accomplished, is an indication of the fragile mood of the side.

In terms of individual talent, Rangers are comparatively strong, but the team has not always played coherently. Players' form has fluctuated while some, such as Kris Boyd, have yet to reach the level expected of them.

Alim Ozturk scores
Alim Ozturk scored a late screamer as Hearts earned a 1-1 draw away to Edinburgh rivals Hibernian

There remain off-field issues, not least uncertainty about how the club will be funded in the immediate future, but the team has operated to a backdrop of turmoil for much of the past two seasons. Problem-solving is integral to management, and the issue facing McCoist ahead of this trip to Tynecastle is whether to be bold or cautious.

Some of Rangers' creative forces have played forlornly at times this season - David Templeton, Fraser Aird and Nicky Law - and the defence has been switched around.

The occasion at Tynecastle will demand strong hearts and minds. Rangers players have been bullish enough in public, but they will carry into the game the knowledge that defeat would be a clear setback.

It would leave Rangers nine points behind Hearts and, while that is not insurmountable, the Ibrox side would be playing catch up at a time when the credentials of the players and the manager would be under the most severe scrutiny.

Rangers cannot afford to lose, but they also need to win. That would redress the dynamic of a season that has seen Hearts establish themselves as the most sure-footed side in the Championship. Yet the Tynecastle side are unbeaten at home, and can approach the game with confidence.

Kris Boyd
Rangers' Kris Boyd has cut a frustrated figure at times this season having failed to find his best form

The dilemma belongs to Rangers: to attack and seek to regain prominence in the title race, or to try to be secure and restrained, so that no further setbacks are to be endured.

While the title will not be won or lost at Tynecastle, much can be gained by the victor, in terms of confidence, momentum and state of mind.

At a stadium where the support looms over the pitch and the atmosphere tends to be raucous and hard-edged, the occasion is likely to be tensely competitive.

Talent belongs to both sides, but it is likely that nerve will be the deciding factor. Most of the attention of Scottish football will be trained on the Edinburgh ground this weekend, for good reason.