HEARTS kicked off one of their most exciting run of fixtures in years with a hard-fought and ultimately deserved win over Aberdeen in a cracker of a game on Saturday, but they could be forgiven for approaching the matches against Rangers at Ibrox, city rivals Hibernian and then their Scottish Cup semi-final against Inverness with some trepidation.

The reason for their angst lies in the increasingly crowded treatment room at Tynecastle, where the star of Saturday’s show, Uche Ikpeazu, is settling in alongside key man Steven Naismith after an accidental clash of heads with Aberdeen’s Lewis Ferguson left him prone on the turf moments after hitting a fine winner.

His goal completed a second-half turnaround for Hearts, clawing back Connor McLennan’s opener for the visitors through a Sean Clare penalty and then claiming the three points through their giant striker.

HeraldScotland: Sean Clare slots home from the spotSean Clare slots home from the spot

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What followed though moments later tempered the celebrations somewhat, and if the blow to Ikpeazu’s head is as serious as feared, and he is to sit out the next three games, his teammate John Souttar believes his absence will be just as keenly felt as Naismith’s.

“I think everyone focuses on his power and strength, but he’s got quality as well,” said Souttar. “He’s not just a battering ram.

“Sometimes that gets overlooked because he’s so quick and strong but he does have a lot of quality.

“He’s unplayable when he plays like that. Having worked with him, I don’t think many centre halves would relish going up against him.

“He’s a great asset for us. He’s a great boy as well. You could see how much he wants to do well for the gaffer and the whole backroom staff. Every time he celebrates, he’s over there and that speaks volumes.

“He’d be as big a loss as Steven Naismith. When you lose Naisy as well it’s a massive one. We’ve shown that we can cope without him to an extent although someone like Naisy I think you will always miss.

“It’s unfortunate as we’ve been so unlucky with injuries this year. I’m sure whoever comes in will do their best. He was obviously stretchered off so will be waiting to see the tests from the doctors. We’ll see how bad it is.

“You go through different tests. You speak with the doctor and physio and they mark you out of 10 to see how you are and how you feel.

“It’s important to be honest as recently there have been a lot of head knocks in football.

“It used to be that you would just get on with it but it’s better looked after now. “

HeraldScotland: Uche Ikpeazu and Andrew ConsidineUche Ikpeazu and Andrew Considine

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If Ikpeazu is to sit out the next few games, the centre-halves of Hearts’ opponents will certainly breathe a little easier. His contest against both Andrew Considine and Scotland defender Scott McKenna was a compelling aspect of an absorbing contest.

There is a strong feeling from Hearts and their manager Craig Levein in particular that Ikpeazu is given a raw deal by officials, and infringements against him are judged by a different threshold to other players due to his brute strength.

There may be a grain of truth in that, but the Hearts man gives as good as he gets. The approach of referee John Beaton on Saturday for the most part was to just allow the players to get on with it, and it made the battle all the more intriguing as a result.

“He is a handful and awkward to play against,” admitted McKenna. “I thought we dealt with him reasonably well in the first half but we lost a bit of concentration, discipline and leadership in the second half and let him get the better of us.

“We used Lewis Ferguson from goal kicks to go and compete with him and allow the centre halves to come over the top and make it a bit easier. The second half, especially from crosses into the box, he got the better of us.”

“I wouldn’t say he crosses the line but he has to have a handful of your shirt before he can do anything with the ball. Maybe sometimes it is a foul but that is the way he plays but I also had a hold of his shirt as well so we can’t complain too much.”

What was particularly disappointing for McKenna was that when Ikpeazu landed his killer blow, he didn’t have to work too hard for the opportunity. McKenna misjudged the pass into the striker, allowing Ikpeazu time to control and curl the ball past Joe Lewis.

HeraldScotland: Scott McKenna was in the warsScott McKenna was in the wars

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“I should do a lot better,” he said. “I don’t know why we got ourselves in the position, especially the way we had played in the first half.

“If we had carried on the way we had started we wouldn’t have been in any danger but we switched off a bit after half-time and they came back all guns blazing.”

What it all means for Aberdeen is that they now face an almighty battle to qualify automatically for the Europa League. The defeat drops them to fourth place, with Hearts now hot on their heels just two points behind.

Kilmarnock have gone above us and it is our own fault,” said McKenna. “We beat ourselves on one or two occasions where we should have won.

“We just need to try and put it right, starting with a win midweek [at home to Motherwell]. We can’t afford to slip up too much between now and the end of the season.”

Like Hearts, Aberdeen also have the small matter of a Scottish Cup semi-final to contend with too, although with all due respect to Inverness, the task for Derek McInnes’s men looks a far sterner one with Celtic lying in wait. That is for another day though.

“We are not concentrating on the semi-final and we still have seven games left in the league to get the wins and secure Europe through the league,” McKenna said.

“We don’t want to rely on the cup, either us winning it or Celtic. “We don’t want to rely on other teams we want to do it ourselves.”