Smith welcomes Hearts' challenge

Rangers manager Walter Smith has hailed Hearts as real contenders in the Clydesdale Bank Premier League this season, and told them he welcomes the challenge.

The Edinburgh outfit sit third in the table, five points behind the Scottish champions and just two adrift of second-placed Celtic, although they have played two games more than both Old Firm clubs.

Smith credits boss Jim Jefferies for making the difference at Tynecastle this term and believes they are now finally realising their true potential.

"I think they are contenders," Smith said. "They've got themselves up into that position.

"Ourselves and Celtic had good opening runs to the season and have dropped a couple of points in the last few weeks.

"There wasn't a steadiness about Hearts at the start of the season but it looks as though Jim has a steadiness about his team at the present moment.

"I feel, over the last few seasons, if there had been a steadiness, Hearts would have been up there, along with Dundee United, challenging the Old Firm. They are there now and it's a challenge you welcome."

Following the postponement of Saturday's game against St Mirren because of water damage caused by burst pipes at Ibrox, Rangers have also seen their match against Dundee United tonight fall victim to the weather for a second time.

That means the Scottish champions have had just one domestic outing - the 1-1 draw at Inverness - in the last month.

"It's awkward for everyone," Smith admitted. "We had a situation where we played quite a lot of games in a two or three-month period and then you have a spell when you only play a couple of games.

"It's how the players handle it mentally. There is obviously an upset in routine, not so much for us because we are fortunate to have an undersoil-heated pitch, but for a number of teams it's awkward in terms of the training.

"You've just got to try to handle it mentally and be ready to play. We would have been hopeful of getting more games to play than we have had at the moment but that wasn't to be."

Meanwhile, Smith confirmed that Maurice Edu and Kyle Lafferty could both return for the Boxing Day visit to Motherwell, although Nikica Jelavic is unlikely to make his comeback until mid-January.