Hearts 0 - 1 Ross County: Pressure increases on Ian Cathro

Ross County's Alex Schalk celebrates opening the scoring for the away side. Picture: SNS
Ross County's Alex Schalk celebrates opening the scoring for the away side. Picture: SNS
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With a new pitch, Hearts were hoping that the grass would prove greener, literally and metaphorically. But while the freshly laid turf was looking good and there were some shoots of recovery in the team’s performance early on, they still finished the game without the win that they desperately needed.

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It was a match that was as close as previous encounters between these two this season.

The previous pair had ended in stalemate and there were signs this one might also, but for a 50th-minute mistake from Alex Tziolis, who dithered over clearing the danger posed by a County attack and allowed Alex Schalk to pounce and drill a finish into Jack Hamilton’s net.

The Tynecastle club have now mustered just three victories in 11 league matches and patience with head coach Ian Cathro is wearing thin.

This result leaves them eight points adrift of thirdplaced Rangers and frantically scrambling for a foothold in the race at the top end of the table.

They started this one without Jamie Walker, who was still struggling after suffering a head knock in Saturday’s 2-0 away loss to Partick, while Isma Goncalves was suspended and Aaron Hughes was still not fit enough to reassume his position in the middle of the defence.

That provided openings for Sam Nicholson and Moha Choulay to start, while Don Cowie returned to the midfield and Krystian Nowak dropped back into defence.

Whether it was those switches in personnel or the knowlege that they had to offer more after performances even they had deemed “embarrassing”, Hearts started the game in more sprightly and spirited fashion than has been the case in recent outings.

With guys like Cowie and Arnaud Djoum leading the charge, they pressed their guests high up the park and demanded that their colleagues did likewise.

But Ross County, who had travelled to Gorgie in search of their first triumph since January, were set up to frustrate and then counter and with a three-man defence that quickly became a five-man wall whenever Hearts burst upfield but surged forward when they had possession, they did that effectively.

Having started February on fire, with seven goals in two games, Hearts have managed to score just twice in their five games since.

Arnaud Djoum came closest last night, rattling the underside of the bar in the 34th minute before Bjorn Johnsen ballooned the rebound well over.

At that stage of proceedings Hearts had the edge, working better as a team than they have of late, with some neat interplay and crisp one-twos in the middle of the park, undoubtedly aided by the vastly improved playing surface, while, on the flanks, Nicholson and Choulay looked intent on carving something out. But, whatever Hearts tried, the Ross County rearguard was resolute, sussing out where the main threats were coming from and keeping them at bay.

The worry was that the home defence did not look as solid and when the Highland side, who are battling to stay above the relegation and play-off slots, charged at them there was a vulnerability.

Initially that manifested itself in a few Ross County balls being zipped across the face of goal before Schalk, Jay McEveley and Tim Chow all tried to test Hamilton before they made the breakthrough.

At the other end, Andraz Struna tried a long-range shot in the 12th minute and Johnsen’s 20th-minute shot on the turn went soaring over.

Choulay also cut inside but Scott Fox had his near post covered and when the Moroccan fired in a cross in for Johnsen, the leaping American just failed to get a touch.

The longer the game stayed at 0-0, the edgier the home fans got.

As the visitors got to grips with the game, Hearts tempo dropped and their pressing game lost its drive as a fifth game without a win loomed.

Malaury Martin came on late as Hearts tried to force a leveller but while there were corners and a couple of efforts, from the French midfielder as well as defender Tasos Avlonitis, there wasn’t a way through.

It was a clear source of annoyance to the home support, who vented their annoyance at the Hearts head coach.

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