Rangers recorded back-to-back wins to close the gap to Aberdeen in second spot to six points, however, for large parts of the game at Ibrox they were second best.
One of those curious afternoons played out at Ibrox yesterday where the difference between winners Rangers and losers Hearts was less-costly deficiencies. There is no disguising these are two deeply flawed teams – under the charge of two doubted coaches – and in that it was fitting mistakes should be central to the outcome. It could be no other way when the campaign about to end has been full of missteps for both these clubs. Rangers manager Pedro Caixinha will be relieved simply to avoid having any more serious questions asked of his team this weekend.
That actually might also be true of Ian Cathro because after his Hearts side found themselves a goal and man down in the early stages, they produced some smart, sharp football in the second period that earned them a deserved 51st-minute equaliser through Esmael Goncalves. Yet, Cathro’s record in charge of the Tynecastle club now reads a mere six wins in 24 games because his decision to give Viktor Noring a debut in goal ultimately ended with the Swede screwing up within seconds of his team getting back on terms.
The 26-year-old – who also produced a string of excellent saves – seemed to be attempting to play some bizarre version of keepie-uppie with a left-wing cross from James Tavernier. He elected to punch it directly up in the air before treating it like a wet fish when gravity drew it back towards him. His spill allowed the ball to drop to Barrie McKay, who steered a right-foot shot into the far corner.
Hearts had chances to make it 2-2 as they took the game to an unconvincing home side, with Don Cowie a driving force in the middle of the park, none better than when Arnaud Djoum intercepted a short pass back to be in on Wes Foderingham. He rounded the Rangers No.1 but then ran out of space and the chance was lost when an attempted backheel was smothered by the keeper.
Cathro deserves credit for switching to a 3-4-2 – having started with a 4-4-2 – after Prince Buaben earned himself a red card from referee Bobby Madden in the 25th minute for hauling back Josh Windass as he wriggled past him at the edge of the box.
Rejigging at the back while retaining two strikers in the form of Goncalves and Bjorn Johnsen provided Hearts with a forward momentum they never looked like building with 11 players on the park, oddly. Rangers could have been a couple of goals up by then, however, with a sixth-minute opener from Joe Garner not a true reflection of their superiority. The gnarly forward’s goal was the product of a glorious left-wing cross from Kenny Miller that was perfect in its flight and precision for the striker to throw himself at and head back across Noring as he fell awkwardly.
Hearts equalised when Johnsen burst forward down the left flank, past Jason Holt and squared for the unmarked Goncalves to confidently side-foot past Foderingham.
No-one from the Rangers camp sought commendations for a streaky victory. Caixinha certainly recognised the performance for what it was, which at least was removed from the recent back-to-back thumpings by Celtic
“There is something leading us to struggle a lot and I am talking about the second balls,” he said. “Since we arrived we have lost 70 per cent of the second balls and today we did it again. We allowed Hearts to have their best moment on the game when they won the challenges and pushed us to play on the back. We could not cope with that.”
In being six points behind and 20 goals worse off than an Aberdeen side that will visit Ibrox on Wednesday in the penultimate round of matches, second place is not an issue for Caixinha. “The players are doing their job and we are still assessing on a regular basis,” he said. “As you know we already started speaking with players and next week we will continue with another group of the players because it’s the last working week. We are looking to win in the last week. We’re ready for it.”
The Rangers support, meanwhile, have long been more than ready to wave goodbye to this painful season.