Heart of Midlothian host Celtic in arguably the biggest Scottish Premiership match of the weekend as domestic football returns following the international break.

It has the prospect of being a fascinating encounter with Hearts looking to land their first win over the Scottish champions since the opening day of the 2021/22 campaign. A lot has changed since then, including the men in the dugout with Steven Naismith having replaced Robbie Neilson at Tynecastle Park and Brendan Rodgers returning to Celtic following Ange Postecoglou's move to Tottenham Hotspur.

With players coming back from injury, Naismith will have plenty of decisions to make regarding the starting line-up against Rangers. Writers Joel and James have a go at predicting what the starting line-up will be:

READ MORE: How Steven Naismith earned Hearts head coach opportunity - presentation, experience, style

Joel Sked

Hearts Standard:

"Against any team, if you are not willing to have times when you have got possession, you are just trying to survive. You are just hoping for a set-play or counter-attack or mistake which gets you a goal. Then you will try to survive. We can't be like that. We want to be better than that. In possession, you need to be comfortable when they press you and how you deal with it."

Steven Naismith's comments when asked if it is a case of being brave and trusting the process are interesting and perhaps suggest the line-up would be tailored too much to being cautious. After all the Hearts head coach spoke of wanting to provide an attacking game plan and style no matter the opponent. Now this is not to suggest the team will or have to be gung-ho at every opportunity but it certainly indicates Hearts fans won't be seeing a team sitting back and allowing Celtic to have plenty of possession in the way teams have to Hearts this season.

There does, however, need to be a balance and even some respect for the opposition, namely their midfield of Callum McGregor, Reo Hatate and Matt O'Riley. There is an argument to have a midfield three of Cammy Devlin, Calem Nieuwenhof and Beni Baningime. That trio could play as a 1-2 (i.e. one No.6 and two No.8s) or a 2-1 (two 6s and a 10). Beni could sit with the energy and mobility of the two Aussies further ahead. Or it could be Nieuwenhof and Beni with Devlin more advanced, charged with pressing McGregor. Getting at the Celtic captain can disrupt the league leaders.

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But playing that trio has a knock-on effect further up the park. Alan Forrest is undroppable. Naismith spoke to the Evening News about how he had been too safe at the start of the season. Then there would be three options on the opposite side. The returning Yutaro Oda, Alex Lowry or Kenneth Vargas. The latter will be full of confidence after two goals for Costa Rica Under-23s and has the pace to threaten in behind and stretch Celtic and support Lawrence Shankland. Lowry being dropped would be harsh after his performance against Hibs. Plus, being on loan from Rangers, he will see this game as a great opportunity to showcase his talent.

There could be the argument of playing Lowry as a No.10 and Naismith saying something along the lines of 'show everyone how far you have developed out of possession' with regards to the responsibility of shackling McGregor.

Predicted line-up: Clark; Sibbick, Kent, Rowles, Cochrane; Baningime, Nieuwenhof; Forrest, Devlin, Lowry; Shankland.

James Cairney

Hearts Standard:

Celtic’s attacking threat means that deploying a three-man defence could prove to be a tempting option for Steven Naismith, but I’d expect the Hearts boss to stick with the 4-2-3-1. Celtic’s midfield three of Callum McGregor, Reo Hatate and Matt O’Riley are probably the best in the league and it’s vital that Hearts do everything they can to avoid the trio running the game. An extra man in midfield, at the expense of another body at the back, seems like the more prudent approach for Naismith to take in my opinion. 

The team’s shape is a tricky question to answer, and Naismith has a habit of keeping us on our toes with regards to his team selection, but elsewhere, large areas of the starting line-up pick themselves. Zander Clark will start in goals, and should be feeling confident after gaining his first Scotland cap against France earlier this week. Stephen Kingsley drops out but Alex Cochrane’s return from injury is timely, and I can’t see Naismith looking beyond Kye Rowles, Frankie Kent and Toby Sibbick to make up the rest of the back four. 

READ MORE: Analysis: Why Hearts are struggling with attacking set-pieces

Things get a little trickier in the middle. Alex Lowry underlined his case for a starting berth with a fine performance in the Edinburgh derby, but I’m not convinced the playmaker is effective enough off the ball to effectively shackle Callum McGregor at the base of Celtic’s midfield. For that reason, I think we could see Cammy Devlin play in a slightly more advanced role where he can harry the Celtic captain. Calem Nieuwenhof continues to go from strength to strength in a deeper midfield role and the Australian is surely nailed on to start, and I think we could see Beni Baningime restored to the starting XI to partner him. The 25-year-old’s ability to beat the press and retain the ball with an opponent breathing down his neck could be very useful. 

On the right, Alan Forrest surely has to start following his excellent display against Hibs but it’s not quite as straightforward on the other wing. Again, Lowry is a tempting option here but I think Kenneth Vargas will get the nod. Both Vargas and Forrest possess enough pace to hurt Celtic on the counter-attack – something that will be key to Hearts’ chances of victory, given Rodgers’ side will likely dominate the ball – and Lowry simply isn’t as quick as his team-mates. Lawrence Shankland will lead the line in attack but I expect the striker to drop deep in order to get involved in the play and avoid becoming isolated – even if that means Hearts lose an out-and-out focal point in attack. 

Predicted line-up: Clark; Sibbick, Kent, Rowles, Cochrane; Nieuwenhof, Baningime; Forrest, Devlin, Vargas; Shankland. 

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