Hearts saw off a determined Ayr United side with two late goals to extend their lead at the top of the Scottish Championship to 15 points.
Second half goals from Armand Gnanduillet and Jamie Walker finally broke the Honest Men resistance as the Jam Tarts earned a deserved victory.
Hearts named an unchanged side from the team that defeated Dundee in last weekend’s encounter, which meant a continuation of the 4-4-2 diamond formation headed by Liam Boyce and Armand Gnanduillet.
Ayr, managed by David Hopkin for the first time, lined up with a compact 5-4-1 formation, which managed to keep Hearts at bay for large portions of the game. The best chance of the opening period came midway through the first half.
After struggling to break down the Ayr defence, Aaron McEneff found space down the right flank and cut the ball back for Andy Halliday, looking to add to his goal last weekend, but keeper Sinijsalo denied the midfielder. From the ensuing corner, Craig Halkett nodded wide from McEneff’s delivery.
The rest of the half followed without incident, in what had become a scrappy affair, and this continued into the second half as Hearts continued to dominate possession without much to show in the way of chances. Michael Smith then made space to slip a pass through to Gnanduillet, who drew a fine save from Sinijsalo.
Moments later, the Jambos introduced Gervane Kastaneer and Jamie Walker, hoping the added width could add a spark, and Walker almost made an immediate impact when Smith’s shot was palmed back out to Walker, but he blazed over the bar.
However, the breakthrough wasn’t far away. Andy Irving won a free kick on the right after some neat footwork, and curled a sumptuous ball into the area for Gnanduillet to leap highest and the striker bulleted a header home.
The game opened up now as Ayr’s time wasting was forced to stop, which suited Hearts nicely. Boyce nearly added a second as he made space in the area and saw a shot deflect wide, before Walker then fired a ball across the face of goal and past the post. Gnanduillet and Walker then linked up, but Walker’s shot was saved.
He wasn’t to be denied, however, and notched his 51st goal in maroon with five minutes to play. Smith burst down the right and whipped in a cross that Kastaneer looked certain to score from, but his header bounced back to Walker who smashed the ball home.
Hearts had their tails up now and drew another fine save from Sinijsalo when Walker slid in Kastaneer, who nearly capped off a bright cameo appearance with a goal, before time came to a close with a deserved three points in Gorgie for the Jambos.
Hearts: Gordon, Smith, Gnanduillet (White, 84'), Boyce, Halliday, Mackay-Steven (Walker, 66'), McEneff (Kastaneer, 67'), Irving, Kingsley, Halkett, Popescu. Subs: Stewart, Berra, Frear, Henderson.
Ayr United: Sinisalo, Houston, Reading, Muirhead, Murdoch, Moffat (Zanatta, 73'), Walsh (Chalmers, 59'), McCowan, Smith (McKenzie, 90'), Ndada, Baird. Subs: Urminsky, Roscoe, Miller, McGavin.
Referee: Colin Steven
Image: David Mollison