IT WAS a day for the Hearts supporters to enjoy. Goals from two fans’ favourites were enough to give them a comfortable win over Aberdeen and ensure that they will see out the remainder of the season crossing swords with the league’s best, rather than tussling with the rest.
A first-half goal from Ryan McGowan gave the Tynecastle outfit the advantage and, given that this was a side with the best home record outwith the Old Firm up against a team who have managed just two wins on the road, it was unlikely that they were going to be overhauled.
There was absolutely no chance of that once Rudi Skacel made the first of his telling goal contributions as the second half warmed up, and he simply capped a fine individual performance with another in the 89th minute.
Aberdeen manager Craig Brown insisted the Czech international was the difference between the teams, and on a day when both sets of players strung along the congested midfield area threatened to cancel each other out, his quality did help Hearts find a way through. But Aberdeen offered little in return and the Hearts keeper Jamie MacDonald only really had one save to make, when a ball was plopped down onto him and he had to gather under the bar. The best Aberdeen chance came in the final few minutes when a Stephen Hughes free-kick was dinked over the wall and into space in the box. Scott Vernon reacted quickly to lose his marker and get on the end of it, but from close range he lashed the final shot high over the bar. With the score still 2-0 at that point, it was an opportunity squandered.
For Hearts, though, it gives them momentum as they head towards their Scottish Cup semi-final and gear up for an assault on the higher echelons of the league in the hope of European action.
“I have already said that if we get sixth then I want to be fifth and then we must fight for every point,” said Sergio. “The result was better than the performance. They fought for every metre of the pitch, but we scored early and we changed tactical positioning and then we controlled the game.”
The opener came from Ryan McGowan in the 27th minute. Danny Grainger skelped in a corner from the right and the young full-back attacked it at the back post, his header finding the net. It delighted the home crowd but Brown will have been unhappy with his players’ defending.
It was the telling point in a game which then swung decisively in Hearts’ direction. Hearts had reinstated key men such as Ian Black to their starting line up and began the game with a solid formation, with defenders Darren Barr and Jamie Hamill deployed in midfield as they sought to add some steel to the guile of the likes of Skacel, who was pushed up alongside Craig Beattie.
It was Skacel who ultimately stole the show, and while Denis Prychynenko made his first-team debut late on, it was the elder statesman who underlined the need for the club to reinforce the promise of the youngsters they hope to introduce next term, with the experience and quality of some older team-mates.
The cult hero plucked the first of his goals almost from nothing, finding space in a central area and unleashing that powerful left foot to leave Jason Brown helpless as the ball whizzed past him.
Sergio said everyone at Hearts was used to that kind of shot from Skacel, adding he would prefer to put the spotlight on the skills employed in netting the side’s third in the 89th minute. His first touch and slight feint sent his marker the wrong way and he was then able to get the strike in. “Only top-class players do things like that. He set up the goal with that first touch. When we are talking about things, like we know we need to reduce costs, that doesn’t mean Rudi can’t keep playing for us. Everybody wants Rudi Skacel in the team.”
Aberdeen were the latest side who proved themselves unable to contain them, but they were able to take one massive positive from their afternoon in the capital, when Russell Anderson made his first appearance since returning to the club. Coming on in the 76th minute, he was immediately handed the captain’s armband. He is the only player at the club to have played for the Pittodrie side in a cup final and with another semi-final looming, that experience and on-field guidance will be crucial. Provided the men in front of him can carve out more goal-scoring attempts than then managed yesterday.
MAN OF THE MATCH Rudi Skacel (Hearts)
Two goals and the kind of skill and guile which can brighten up any match.
TALKING POINT Hearts have now secured a place in the top six post split.
Referee: W Collum. Attendance: 13,292