Hearts slumped to only a second league defeat of the season at Ibrox this afternoon, losing out 2-1 to Rangers.
The home side stormed into a two-goal lead in the first half courtesy of Kenny Miller and Haris Vuckic before Genero Zeefuik halved the deficit late in the game, following a red card for Lee McCulloch.
Robbie Neilson made two changes to his Championship-winning side after last weeks’ win over Queen of the South; Kevin McHattie replaced Adam Eckersley while Sam Nicholson slotted in for Billy King, who dropped to the bench.
The home side started well and got a shot on target after only two minutes. Haris Vuckic’s clever corner found Nicky Law 25 yards out, but his half-volley was comfortably stopped by Neil Alexander.
The Jambos struggled to get out of their own half at times in the opening 20 minutes, though Nicholson and Osman Sow showed flashes of attacking brilliance that gave the travelling support optimism.
Jamie Walker probed as best he could and after 21 minutes unleashed a 25-yard piledriver that just swerved past Cammy Bell’s left-hand post.
The deadlock was broken just before the half-hour mark and it was the hosts who got their noses in front. Lee Wallace broke down the right and fired a low cross into the middle for Miller to poke past Alexander.
Hearts immediately tried to bounce back. First, Alim Ozturk’s trademark long-range free-kick forced Bell into a block then Nicholson slammed wide from the edge of the box.
A poor Bell clearance then found Walker 18 yards out, but his snapshot was blocked by the Rangers ‘keeper at his near post.
Rangers doubled their lead after 39 minutes. A ball out wide to Vuckic saw the Rangers man step away from his man at the edge of the box before swinging a low ball into the bottom corner of the net.
Hearts were handed a lifeline before half-time when Lee McCulloch was shown a straight red card for elbowing Sow in an aerial challenge.
Rangers replaced goalscorer Vuckic with Bilel Mohsni at half time, which meant the men in maroon were set to enjoy more possession in the second period.
However it was the home side who saw the first attack of the restart. Law burst down the left and was able to pick out Nicky Clark unmarked in the middle but his shot lacked power and Alexander smothered with ease.
As expected, the Jambos enjoyed a period of domination. A succession of corners saw substitute Billy King’s cross find Ozturk at he back door, but he blasted wildly over form eight yards.
At the other end a corner of Rangers’ own caused trouble in the Hearts defence with Alexander making a smart stop from Law’s half-volley.
With seven minutes remaining, Hearts pulled one back. Ozturk’s cross was headed goal-wards by Sow and Zeefuik was there to tap the ball home and set up a frantic final few minutes.
Ultimately the Jambos couldn’t make the numerical advantage count as Rangers ran out 2-1 winners, in what is only Hearts’ second league defeat in an incredible season.
Rangers: Bell, Walace, McCulloch, Law, Vuckic (Mohsni, 46'), Clark, Miller (Crawford, 72'), Shiels (Black, 77'), McGregor, Zaliukas, Murdoch. Subs: Simonsen, Templeton, Boyd, Hardie.
Hearts: Alexander, Paterson, McHattie (Keatings, 75'), Wilson, Ozturk, Gomis (King, 60'), Walker, Nicholson, Pallardo, Sow, Zeefuik. Subs: Hamilton, El Hassnaoui, Anderson, McKay, McGhee.
Referee: Bobby Madden
Top man: Jamie Walker