THERE is a glint in Craig Levein’s eye these days, and more than a touch of mischief about his answers when being questioned by the media.

His pre and post-match comments have become almost as entertaining as his table-topping side, but like his team, he has the substance to back up his front.

It was always likely that Levein would have a one-liner prepared for questions on the prospect of facing up to his former player Kyle Lafferty as Hearts travel to take on Rangers at Ibrox today, and the Tynecastle boss didn’t disappoint.

“When I watch him, he runs about like mad, you know?” smiled Levein. “He only ever done that for us against Celtic.”

You might have thought he would have given some consideration to the rather more serious prospect of taking on Hearts’ top scorer from last season, but apparently not.

“I’ve not even thought about [if I’d like him to play or not] because I’m not sure that Stevie Gerrard is going to listen to what I would rather,” he said. “Kyle scored 19 goals for us last season, so we know just how much of a potent threat he is. Kyle has scored goals in big matches wherever he has been. We’re well aware of what Kyle is capable of, but I’m an admirer of [Alfredo] Morelos as well, he’s a really good striker.

“Our way of dealing with that will be our two young centre-backs who are improving week-on-week, and I think they are capable of dealing with just about everything that is thrown at them.

“Whatever they do - whether they play one, the other or both - we have to be prepared for all of those things.

“I thought [Lafferty’s move] would happen eventually. It was just about getting the right deal, and that’s where we got to. To be fair, Kyle made it clear that he wanted to go back to Rangers, and he’s started well there. He’s scored a few goals already.”

The loss of Lafferty and his goals has been offset by the sparkling form of a fully-fit Steven Naismith and in part, the arrival of human battering-ram Uche Ikpeazu.

The forward has been out of action since being injured at Fir Park last month, but Levein is hopeful he will return to his squad for the trip to Govan.

“He is doing some work on his own,” he said. “Touch wood he’ll be OK. The good thing for me in the last two matches in particular is Uche has obviously been a big player for us but in the last two we have been really good without him.

“Some of our attacking play against Motherwell and St Johnstone is as good as it has been. So that gave me a degree of comfort knowing that, if Uche is out, we can deal with it.

“And we also get David Vanacek at the beginning of January, and again, if Uche is out, he’ll bring us something completely different as well.

“With regard to striking options we’re going to be alright.”

If Hearts can get out of Govan with three points this afternoon, their prospects at the top of the table will be looking a damn sight better than alright. A victory would open up an 11-point gap on their opponents at this early stage of the season, but Levein said: “I would never be as presumptuous to talk about us achieving that 11-point gap, we’ve got a lot of work to do to get to that point.

“I think this is going to be our toughest game so far. We’re away from home at Ibrox.

“We’re in a good place just now, which you would imagine would be the case. We haven’t been to a venue like Ibrox yet with 40-odd thousand people there, so it’s another thing we need to contend with.

“We are feeling good and confident, the training has been fantastic, and it has ratcheted up week on week and is getting more and more competitive.

“The signs are that we’re feeling fairly confident about where we are just now. This is a different test of course and I’ll be really interested to see how we cope with it.”

One might imagine that such a massive occasion would also be a test for Levein given that he is still recovering from his recent health scare, but there are no signs of him slowing down or changing his animated manner on the touchline, or considering stepping upstairs into the stand during matches.

“No, not at all,” he said. “Obviously I had a couple of weeks when I didn’t have as much energy but I’m feeling good.

“The difference between being up the stair and down on the touchline is the connection with everything around you. Whether it is the dug-out, fourth official, linesman, players close to you, referee close to you, challenges, noises. Once you are on the touchline it is really difficult not to feel all that stuff. No matter how much I think I need to watch what I’m doing, it doesn’t work that way.

“I did that during the Livingston game and it wasn’t great, so I will be in the dugout from now on.”