Wonderful victory leaves Hearts flying
Hearts made it five wins on the bounce at Tynecastle this afternoon as they despatched a modest Rangers side courtesy of early goals by Marius Zaliukas and Larry Kingston. Bruno Aguiar and Christophe Berra were heavily involved in both goals, and although Rangers pulled one back through Christos Karipidis's unlucky own goal, Walter Smith's side could do nothing to rescue the situation further, even after the 75th-minute dismissal of Lee Wallace.
Two changes for the home side saw the return of Larry Kingston to the starting eleven for the first time since the draw against Hibs in October, and of Jamie MacDonald who was making his first start since the corresponding fixture at Ibrox in August. Eggert Jonsson dropped to the bench, while Janos Balogh had picked up a fever and missed out altogether.
Rangers, resplendent in an all-white it for this one, made just a single change from their reportedly unconvincing victory over Aberdeen at Ibrox seven days ago, Madjid Bougherra coming back in to displace Lee McCulloch in the centre of defence.
Given their recent good form, hopes were unusually high among the home support, especially given Rangers' troubles on the road in recent times. The Ibrox men have drawn at Fir Park and lost at Love Street already in recetn weeks, although, of course they have also chalked up great wins at Parkhead, Easter Road and Rugby Park. Clearly, it would depend to a great extent both on what sort of mood they were in and whether Hearts would be able to transfer the solidity they have shown in their past four games on to a new level.
It pretty soon became apparent that they would. True, there was little guile or craft about their early advances in the direction of Allan McGregor's goal, there was certainly plenty of dig, which appeared to knock the visitors very much out of their stride. An early flurry inside the Rangers box saw both Kingston and Robbie Neilson have efforts blocked, before Bruno Aguiar bent a corner kick wickedly just onto the roof of the Rangers net with Berra lurking at the post.
That Rangers were feeling some unease was evidenced by a couple of meaty challenges by Charlie Adam on Robbie Neilson and then Steven Whittaker on Kingston, all of which drew fouls but no card from the lenient Mr McDonald. There was no card either when Neilson handled - accidentally it seemed - at the edge of the area, and Hearts were further relieved when Kris Boyd lashed the resultant free-kick high and wide of the target.
But most of the play was flowing towards Allan McGregor, and it came as little surprise when Hearts carved out the opening goal on 20 minutes. Bruno Aguiar was the architect with a teasing free-kick which Christophe Berra headed down at the far post. McGregor saved well enough, but the ball squirmed lose and when Kingston's swiped was blocked, Zaliukas was on hand to sweep the ball home from two yards.
You could scarcely have expected the same combination to work gain just two minutes later, but amazingly it did. Aguiar's delivery came from nearer the byline this time and hung high towards the far post, Berra headed strongly back across goal and there was the unguarded Kingston, stooping to nudge from a yard out.
No doubt Hearts would have wanted to consolidate their lead for five minutes before pressing forward again. Unfortunately they failed to do so. Three minutes later and Charlie Adam was on hand to tease in a good delivery of his own from the left which Boyd head down and up onto the crossbar. The unfortunate Christos Karipidis then got himself into a fankle attempting to clear, before bundling the ball into his own net.
It was breathless stuff for supporters, possibly a little too open for coaches and players though. Mindful of this, perhaps, both teams appeared happy to ease back a little and take stock as we entered the second quarter of the game.
Even as the intensity dropped though, still the chances did not dry up completely and there were pile-driving shots wide of target from Mendes and Berra, while yet more great work by Aguiar down the right set up Kingston at the near post, only for the Ghanaian to miss his kick right in front of the exposed McGregor.
No changes for either side at the interval, although there was little doubt that would change if Rangers proved unable to claw back the second goal. They started off with no little intent, Mendes firing ambitiously from 35 yards out on the right but the effort was always too high even if it did drop tantalisingly onto the roof of the net.
Smith had seen enough within ten minutes of the restart, bringing off the ineffective Adam and introducing Chris Burke for his first appearance since mid April. Still it was Hearts who looked the more likely to extend their lead, Ruben Palazuelos showing great vision to outwit Barry Ferguson in the middle of the park before releasing Kingston on the right. The midfielder touched the ball inside before unleashing a bouncing shot that McGregor watched carefully before pushing around the post.
That was to be the mercurial Ghanaian's last action in the game before he was replaced by Eggert Jonsson on 63 minutes as Hearts looked to solidify their defensive formation. After a couple of lung-bursting runs up the right wing, however, the Icelander soon found himself playing his fourth different position of the season when he was pressed into service at left-back following the dismissal of Lee Wallace with fifteen minutes remaining.
The youngster could have little complaint about the official's decision. As well as he had played for 70 minutes, he had found Burke a tricky customer to deal with since the winger's introduction, and two late challenges on the right touchline was all it took to end his involvement in the game.
Backs to the wall then for the final fifteen, then, but how superbly well Hearts coped with an unpromising situation. Deividas Cesnauskis brought his fresh legs to the right in place of Bruno Aguiar, while David Obua came in up front to replace the exhausted Nade. That led to slightly better possession for the home side, and relieved the pressure just enough to prevent the white tide from becoming irresistible.
The visitors' last resort was to launch some predictable howitzers into the box, but the redoubtable Berra and Zaliukas kept it simple with their clearances and the watchful Karipidis and Palazuelos mopped up any scraps. Although not reduced quite to the level of spectator, MacDonald suffered very few anxious moments in goal as Hearts garnered their fifth win in succession to further cement their grip on third place in the table.
Hearts: MacDonald; Neilson, Zaliukas, Berra, Wallace; Kingston (Jonsson 63), Karipidis, Palazuelos, Driver; Nade (Obua 84); Aguiar (Cesnauskis 80). Booked: Wallace. Sent off: Wallace. Subs not used: Kello, Makela, Mole, Thomson.
Rangers: McGregor, Broadfoot, Bougherra, Weir, Wittaker; Lafferty, Ferguson, Mendes, Adam (Burke 55); Darchville (Novo 71), Boyd. Booked: Bougherra, Boyd, Whittaker, Lafferty. Subs not used: Alexander, Edu, McCulloch, Aaron, Loy.
Referee: Dougie McDonald
Top man: Christophe Berra, instrumental in the build up for both goals and a rock in defence thereafter.
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