AN unexpectedly easy victory yesterday over opponents who have caused them some trouble in recent seasons was enough to put Hearts within a point of qualifying for the Europa League. St Johnstone had lost only three times in their last 18 visits to Tynecastle, but on this occasion lacked the invention which they have shown for much of the season.
Playing what was probably his last game at Tynecastle, Rudi Skacel opened the scoring midway through the first half. Once Andy Webster added a second a dozen minutes into the second period, the three points were safe and, as a result of the win, Hearts took a two-point lead over their opponents, who had begun the day in fifth place.
With a superior goal difference, Hearts need only a point at Celtic on Sunday to ensure European competition next season. St Johnstone, who are at home to Rangers at the same time, must win that match and rely on Hearts losing. And of course, Paulo Sergio’s team have another chance of claiming a place in Europe on Saturday week, when they meet Hibernian in the Scottish Cup final.
With goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald suffering from a virus and Craig Beattie still nursing a hamstring strain, Sergio was at least two men short of what is likely to be his starting line-up for that game at Hampden. Scotland Under-21 ’keeper Mark Ridgers took over from MacDonald for his first start, while Stephen Elliott was up front just ahead of Skacel.
A third possible difference from Sergio’s plans saw Suso Santana start, with David Templeton on the bench. The pecking order could be changed come 19 May, though Templeton may first have to prove his match fitness by starting at Celtic Park in six days’ time.
Ridgers was a spectator in the opening minutes as the home team took the game to St Johnstone, whose defence had to be on their toes to cut out what would otherwise have been a scoring pass from Elliott out on the left to Driver. Jody Morris had the visitors’ first attempt on goal after eight minutes, but his low drive skidded wide of the left post.
Ridgers had that effort covered, but looked less secure a little later when misjudging the flight of a cross. Cillian Sheridan got to the ball before him, and the ’keeper was relieved to see the striker’s header drift over the bar.
Unsurprisingly with a European place at stake, the match was livelier than the previous league meetings between the teams this season, and Hearts enlivened it further with the opening goal after 21 minutes, begun and ended by Skacel. A shot from outside the box by the Czech rebounded to Ian Black, who fed Ryan McGowan on the right. As Callum Davidson tried to close him down, the Australian chipped a cross towards goal, and from around six yards out Skacel volleyed into the net for his 16th goal of the season.
Skacel tried his luck minutes later with another shot, after McGowan had headed a Danny Grainger corner from the left back across the face of goal, but this time the scorer was off target. The game was by no means one-way traffic, though, and Murray Davidson was only denied the equaliser when his header was blocked on the line by Black.
Around ten minutes from half-time, Marcus Haber had the ball in the net, but the assistant referee’s flag had already gone up for offside by the time he had gained possession from Ridgers’ block of a Sheridan shot. Hearts then had an excellent chance to double their lead, when Marius Zaliukas ran into the box unmarked to meet a cross. But his timing was slightly off, and his downward header bounced too high.
Ridgers had been a less than reassuring presence in the home goal thus far, but he gave proof of his ability a couple of minutes before the break with a fine save from a Callum Davidson shot. Hearts ended the half on the attack, conscious that they would probably need another goal before they could think of closing the contest down.
A knock to Darren Barr persuaded Sergio to make a change early in the second half, with Scott Robinson coming on to replace the former Falkirk player. While Barr was walking round the pitch on his way to the tunnel and Hearts remained a man down, St Johnstone mounted the first real attack of the half. Chris Millar took up a threatening position, but rightly opted to pass left to Morris, who was in more space. The former Chelsea player unleashed a fierce shot, but Ridgers first took the sting out of it, then clutched it at the second attempt.
Minutes later, Morris was booked for the latest in a number of fouls, and from the resultant free-kick Hearts scored again. Grainger took the award from close to the right touchline, and Webster skidded in to direct his low inswinger into the net from inside the six-yard box. Zaliukas had a good opportunity to make it 3-0 barely two minutes later, but his header from a Black corner was just wide of the target.
Derek Riordan came off the visitors’ bench for his first appearance at Tynecastle since his days as a Hibs player, and from successive corners on the left he produced a couple of deliveries which might have helped St Johnstone back into the game. But Sheridan mistimed the first to head too high, and the second was just beyond the reach of Haber at the back post.
Hearts had succeeded in taking much of the sting out of the match after going two up, but they would have been in for a nervy last 15 minutes had Riordan been on target with a volley from distance after beating the offside trap. Instead, his shot went harmlessly over the bar. St Johnstone came no closer in what remained of the match to pulling a goal back, and Hearts ended the afternoon in a more relaxed frame of mind than they must have expected.