The inside track on Hearts and their dangermen - and the Sunderland-linked striker who may not be involved on Saturday
Sunderland head to Hearts this weekend as their pre-season campaign steps-up a notch.
The Black Cats travelled north of the border earlier this week for a training camp in Edinburgh and will now prepare to take on the Scottish Premiership side at Tynecastle on Saturday afternoon (3pm kick-off).
Alex Pritchard and Corry Evans could make their debuts in the clash, while a host of young players are also set for an opportunity as Sunderland continue their summer squad rebuild.
While the two teams have met in the past, they have not faced-off in a number of years – meaning that Robbie Neilson’s side are something of an unknown.
But with Hearts having already begun their season, there is plenty of information to garner about the side Sunderland will face this weekend.
We spoke to Joel Sked, who covers Hearts for the Edinburgh Evening News, to get his take on the side and what should be expected from the Scottish side this weekend.
He offered an insight into the team’s style of player, danger men – and revealed why one rumoured Sunderland target of the past may not be involved:
How have Hearts fared in the early weeks of pre-season?
JS: The season is already underway with two games having been played. The Premier Sports Cup (League Cup) group stages started two days before the Euro 2020 final! Hearts finished their season at the end of April then returned for pre-season in June. Got a host of friendlies played against lower league opposition giving the squad, which has been reduced, plenty of game time ahead of the trip to Peterhead in the first game of the League Cup.
Hearts won 2-0 with a solid, if unspectacular performance. It has to be remembered the club have, at times, struggled in the group stages so it was a good way to get up and running. Then on Tuesday, the team were largely excellent in a 3-0 win over Cove Rangers with 2,000 fans back in the ground.
At the end of last season, Robbie Neilson switched the team to a back three to good effect. In the two games so far it has been a 3-4-3 and there have been positive signs and some fluidity.
How are they expected to approach the Sunderland game? Will they be rotating their squad of playing with a more settled side?
JS: I'll tackle the second question first. Only two changes were made from the Peterhead to Cove games and Neilson said after the latter he would change it up a bit more. The squad isn't huge but I would imagine Jamie Walker, Jordan Roberts, Loic Damour and Mihai Popescu - the latter two haven't been used yet - will feature, plus a few of the younger boys likes Euan Henderson, Connor Smith, Scott McGill.
Josh Ginnelly and Stephen Kingsley missed the end of last season through injuries, while John Souttar missed a lot of football across the past 18 months so wouldn't be surprised if those three - all key players - are given the afternoon off or are on the bench.
I'm most intrigued to see what formation Neilson uses. Does he continue to work on the 3-4-3 having talked about the need to ensure the team pressures the opposition and still needs to work on aspects of it. Or if he reverts to a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 with the manager keen on the team being flexible in the shapes they play.
Will there be any notable absentees for the game?
JS: Armand Gnanduillet, who impressed at Blackpool before moving to Turkey, has missed the opening two games with a thigh issue. He is the only injury concern. As noted, some of the senior players who have had injury issues in the past could be managed this weekend.
Who should Sunderland fans keep an eye out for?
JS: Hearts have got a very good spine to the squad. All Sunderland fans will be familiar with Craig Gordon. He was this writer's - and many Hearts fans - player of the season last campaign. He wasn't that busy but when he was called into action the saves he made were top class. Although there may be game time for reserve goalkeeper Ross Stewart (no relation to Sunderland's very own Ross Stewart).
John Souttar is a very classy centre-back. So assured on the ball, very intelligent and has had a real aggression to his game. If it wasn't for injuries he'd be at a much higher level already.
Peter Haring is an influential force in midfield. So good at reading the game, so good at latching onto loose and second balls in midfield and so could at breaking up play. But he can play as well and his switches of play are excellent.
Then there is Liam Boyce. Such a crafty, inventive striker who is simultaneously the club's best No.10 and best No.9.
Are a team like Sunderland viewed as a good challenge for Hearts?
JS: I think the Black Cats are still viewed as a big name and a decent draw for Hearts. If it wasn't for the League Cup group stages I'd go as far as saying this would be the glamour friendly before the season starts. But due to the nature of the domestic season in Scotland and the expectation that changes will be made, it isn't perhaps the biggest challenge of the pre-season. I reckon supporters will be excited to see the fringe and young players test themselves against Sunderland.