Hearts came out winners in a pulsating ninety minutes, scoring the only goal of the game with their sole shot on target. Rangers dominated in the first half but failed to take one of their many chances with Marian Kello in the Hearts goal again showing that he is one of the top goalkeepers in the league.
Rangers switched from the 4-4-2 that brought about recent wins over Inverness, Hamilton and Kilmarnock, to a 4-1-4-1 formation with Kyle Lafferty leading the line. James Beattie was replaced by Steven Naismith and Andy Webster and Ricky Foster were dropped with Madjid Bougherra and Sasa Papac returning in defence. Hearts again lined up 4-2-3-1 with Ryan Stevenson deployed as an auxiliary striker in the continued absence of Kevin Kyle and with David Obua dropping out after his failed attempt in the same role against Kilmarnock on Tuesday night. Stephen Elliott returned to the starting line up after his brace in the same match and Rudi Skacel had recovered from injury, meaning that Arvydas Novikovas and Ian Black dropped out.
Jonsson Bouzid Zaliukas Wallace
Elliot Skacel Templeton
Naismith Ness Edu Davis
Papac Weir Bougherra Whittaker
It was Rangers who made the better start, completely dominating the first half, including an effort from Lafferty that tested Kello within a minute of play. They managed a total of six shots in the opening forty-five minutes, forcing saves from the Slovak each time. Rangers’ strategy was to sit deep and hit Hearts on the counter attack, getting the ball out wide to Davis and Naismith, their two most creative outlets. Their star man, however, was the 19-year-old Jamie Ness. He was tenacious in tackles and made dangerous runs forward, forcing Kello into two good saves in the process.
Hearts failed to get going in the first half, almost at all. With Kyle absent, Hearts lacked a natural target man and it was clear from the start that they were apprehensive of sending direct passes high towards Stevenson, a tactic used for most of the season by manager Jim Jefferies. Another point of note was Elliott’s tendency to drift inside from the right, his natural position being striker, which left his full-back Eggert Jonsson exposed. Papac was able to exploit this space ahead of him, getting forward on a number of occasions.
By the end of the half Hearts had managed to relieve most of the pressure exerted on them by Rangers and, despite being under the cosh for the vast majority of the half, headed into the break still level.
The second half began as more of an even contest. Both teams tried to pass the ball around on a poor surface and Hearts were much more competitive that they were in the first, pressing Rangers at every opportunity. Jefferies waited only another ten minutes to realise that he needed to change things and withdrew the ineffective David Templeton for Gary Glen. This meant that Stevenson moved back into midfield in a more compact yet fluid 4-2-2-2 with Glen and Elliot up front.
Jonsson Bouzid Zaliukas Wallace
The change allowed left-back Lee Wallace, who in the past has shown himself to be Hearts’ best attacking threat, to push forward more often and link up with Skacel who drifted wide. Hearts then began to dominate and it was from the left side that the goal eventually came on seventy-seven minutes.
Skacel pulled wide and played a neat one-two with Wallace leading to a scrappy few seconds. Wallace then broke free from the challenges of Davis and Ness before cutting the ball back to Elliott. His tame effort was controlled and tapped in by Stevenson in a crowded penalty area. It was no more than Hearts deserved on second half performance and a Hearts goal, should it come, was always likely to develop from the meandering forward runs of Wallace.
It was only then that Walter Smith decided to change things, bringing on Nikica Jelavic, Robert Fleck and Vladimir Weiss within ten minutes of each other and pushing into more of a 4-4-1-1. Davis was moved in to the central of midfield with Lee McCulloch with Weiss and Naismith on the wings and Fleck just off Jelavic in attack.
Naturally, Hearts sat back in order to protect their lead, which meant that Rangers finished the more attacking of the two sides. Their best chance in the final ten minutes came out of nowhere. Jelavic showed tremendous technique to volley what seemed to be a fairly innocuous cross from Fleck on to the bar. For the first time in the match Kello was routed to the spot but Hearts survived and took the three points.
The win takes Hearts to within two points of Rangers and within seven of Celtic at the top of the league with each team playing a different amount of matches so far. The media have been quick to announce that we now have a three-way race for the SPL title, however, the real test starts on Wednesday when Hearts travel to Celtic Park to take on the league leaders. Hearts then entertain St. Johnstone at Tynecastle before heading to Ibrox for a rematch with Rangers.
Star man: Lee Wallace (with Marian Kello a very, very close second)