MARIUS Zaliukas provided the bulk of the entertainment at both ends last night as Hearts took their place in the quarter-finals of the Scottish Communities League Cup despite a spirited display by Livingston.
Hearts 3 (Granger 45; Zaliukas 70, 74) Livingston 1 (McNulty 56)
Danny Grainger gave the home team the advantage just before half-time, but Zaliukas’s slip led directly to the equaliser by Marc McNulty not long after the restart. For a time the match followed a similar script to the Edinburgh team’s defeat by Ayr in the competition a year ago, when they took the lead, had control, yet ended up losing on penalties. But then the captain made amends with two goals in quick succession, allowing Hearts to play out the game in a degree of comfort and secure back-to-back wins for the first time this season.
Unsurprisingly, Hearts manager John McGlynn made just one change to his starting line-up from Saturday’s morale-boosting win at Tannadice, bringing back Andrew Driver in place of Dale Carrick. With Andy Webster still out because of a lower-back injury, Darren Barr partnered Zaliukas at centre-half.
The Livingston line-up included Jordan Morton, who was released by Hearts in the summer. But, with due respect to Morton, the home support were more enthusiastic about welcoming back Livingston goalkeeper Andy McNeil, who is fondly remembered in Gorgie for committing the odd howler in the Edinburgh derby while a Hibs player.
The Livingston management team of John Collins and John Hughes, both former Hibs players and managers, may be held in less esteem by the Hearts fans. But their experience of Tynecastle must have helped prepare their team for the game, and there was no sign of Livingston being overawed by the occasion.
The low attendance and the consequent lack of atmosphere perhaps played a part in that, but Livingston also looked genuinely up for a tough contest. And, after a lively start, it was the visitors who created the first scoring chance of the night, when Stefan Scougall got the better of the Hearts offside trap with a well-timed pass to McNulty down the left. With the Hearts defence appealing in vain for a flag, the striker fired in a low shot which Jamie MacDonald was pleased to see go just wide of the far post.
At the other end, Callum Paterson, the scorer of a double in that win at Dundee United, embarked on a dangerous run down the left before being halted by a late, sliding tackle from Craig Barr. The challenge appeared ill-timed rather than malicious, but Barr nonetheless became the first name in referee Steven McLean’s book.
While Livingston continued to threaten on the break, Hearts enjoyed a little more of the ball as the first half wore on. Their problem, however, was getting forward in sufficient numbers to make good use of it. Ryan Stevenson and Mehdi Taouil were both lying relatively deep, but the drive of the first and the invention of the second would have been more gainfully employed further forward.
Right-back Ryan McGowan was able to get up and down the flank regularly, however, and one run of his was brought to an abrupt end in the same way as Paterson’s had been on the other side. This time Jesus Garcia Tena was the man in a yellow jersey who was shown a yellow card.
Minutes later, Zaliukas was also cautioned after misjudging a threatening run through the middle from Stefan Scougall and bringing him down. The resultant free-kick produced nothing for Livingston, but it did lead directly to a counter-attack in which Driver came close to scoring. Breaking clear down the inside-right channel, Driver looked to have McNeil beaten with his shot, but it was a foot too high.
A minute later, Scott Robinson was on target with a header from a Novikovas cross, but McNeil pulled off a fine save to preserve the stalemate. Anthony Andreu was just as accurate with a shot at the other end, but MacDonald turned it wide.
Just as the first half seemed to be petering out without a goal, Grainger stepped up to break the deadlock with a powerful shot from around 30 yards. McNeil had it covered as it headed just inside the right post, but a deflection inside the box changed its direction, leaving the goalkeeper with no chance.
Having made the breakthrough, Hearts began the second half in more assertive style, and had a penalty claim denied just two minutes in when Paterson went down. Robinson was not far off target with a header moments later, and it seemed clear that a second goal would kill off the First Division side.
Novikovas and Barr then had chances, the first off target, the second saved by McNeil as Hearts’ domination continued. But then Zaliukas invited Livingston back into the game with a slipshod piece of defending.
The Lithuanian had time to clear when he received possession inside his own half, but hesitated. That allowed McNulty to nip in and dispossess him, and seconds later the striker calmly slotted a shot past MacDonald.
For a time that slip looked like being costly, as Livingston took fresh hope from it. But, as Hearts’ efforts began to take on a despairing look, Zaliukas made amends. After a corner from the left took a couple of touches deep in the box, the captain applied the one that mattered with a well-controlled shot from close range.
Novikovas should then have secured the win when through on McNeil, but he shot wide. Still, the clincher was only delayed, and again it arose from a corner from the left. This time there was no scramble in the box, as Zaliukas met the ball almost unchallenged at the near post, nodding in from a yard out.
Hearts: MacDonald, R McGowan, D Barr, Zaliukas, Grainger, Taouil, Stevenson, Driver (Carrick 80), Robinson, Novikovas, Paterson (Sutton 79). Subs not used: Enckelman, D McGowan, Smith.
Livingston: McNeil, Docherty, Garcia (Fordyce 75), Watson, C Barr, Jacobs, Andreu, Russell (Easton 82), McNulty, Scougall, Morton (Gray 80). Subs not used: Jamieson, Downie.
Referee: S McLean