All is well that ends well. After a week in which they heard their mettle being questioned, Hearts displayed a great deal of resistance to withstand a strong second-half showing by Falkirk.
Falkirk 1-2 Hearts
Scorers: Falkirk - Biabi (71); Hearts - McHattie (27), El Hassnaoui (37)
Rather than facing the threat of relinquishing their place at the summit at Tynecastle against nearest challengers Rangers this weekend, a scenario many expected, Hearts have the chance to extend their lead to a remarkable nine points. Now who is feeling the heat?
It was Rangers defender Darren McGregor who last week threw in a comment – amid some other very positive observations about Hearts, admittedly – designed to let the leaders know that their poorer form of late had been noted by the team on their tail.
While the Ibrox side were, it appeared, getting into their stride, Hearts required a last-minute wonder goal to rescue a point against Hibs. They then scrambled past Raith Rovers with a 1-0 win that several within their own camp conceded was barely deserved. McGregor was alert to this. “My question would be about when the pressure starts increasing and their points advantage gets smaller – can they handle it?” he asked.
The hopes those at Ibrox may have harboured about such close-run things marking a downturn in Hearts’ fortunes were dashed on Saturday, firstly by Rangers’ own poor result against Alloa and then later when news emerged that the leaders had survived a tough second-half examination by Falkirk.
Robbie Neilson later described this victory as Hearts’ most important result of the season given that so many predicted this might be where his side would taste defeat in the league for the first time. It didn’t quite work out like that. A superb shot on the turn by Kevin McHattie that exploded into the rigging following good preparatory work by Billy King set Hearts on their way after 26 minutes.
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A close-range finish by Soufian El Hassnaoui following Jamie Walker’s centre eight minutes before half-time threatened to make counting the twinkling lights of Grangemouth seem like the most interesting thing to do in the second half. But Falkirk rallied impressively and cut the deficit through a fine individual strike by substitute Botti Biabi after 70 minutes.
There was still plenty time left for the home side to search for an equaliser but Hearts held out, though they were fortunate Joe Shaughnessy could not make the most of a chance at the back post in the dying seconds.
Having played both title favourites within a seven-day period, former Tynecastle goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald is well placed to provide an educated assessment of this Saturday’s big match between his old club and Rangers. The goalkeeper has already observed that Hearts play the more attractive football, following a 4-1 thumping at Tynecastle earlier this season. Having been given another view of Hearts, and though the margin of defeat was much narrower, he saw little reason to change his mind.
“It is going to be a close one and Hearts play the better football overall but Rangers have that experience,” he said. “Rangers bullied us and they know how to win. Hearts are playing very well and they seem to have that winning mentality. It will be a close game.
“Hearts have a good cushion and they deserve it the way they have played since the start of the season,” he added. “This is a game that Rangers need to win more than Hearts.
“Hearts have not been defeated this season and they strike me as being tough opposition. Hearts have a good kind of mix with the silky soccer players but they can also back it up with the likes of Prince Buaben and Morgaro Gomis and the back four can all look after themselves.”
It wasn’t always pretty and as on Friday in the match between Scotland and Republic of Ireland, it was hard to fathom how the final whistle sounded with 22 players on the park.
But Hearts just about deserved the points for their opening-half display. They pushed Falkirk back to an extent that it felt like minor triumphs on those few occasions when the hosts reached the edge of the Hearts box.
Neilson sprung a surprise by finally selecting Miguel Pallardo from the start. After just two substitute appearances, the Spanish midfielder with La Liga experience was becoming understandably frustrated at having to sit and watch second-tier football in Scotland.
He was given his chance to shine on Saturday evening. While he did not distinguish himself in the way some might have expected from someone who has played at such a high level, he contributed a very accomplished performance in a role that required him simply to keep the ball moving. His presence meant that Buaben was pushed further forward, with Pallardo joining Gomis in the centre of midfield. It could well form the plan of action against Rangers this weekend.
“Is all the pressure on Rangers? I think so,” said Gomis, continuing the psychological warfare that we had better get used to this week. “But we don’t really look into it because it’s still early in the season. It’s a long season and we will see what happens.
“I think we showed against Falkirk that we can handle the pressure,” he added. “I don’t know what the Rangers players have been saying. If they have been saying that [the pressure is on Hearts], so be it. We are happy where we are and we are just going to enjoy it.”
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