How Rangers made a statement to Celtic as Hearts fail to land a blow

It was a result that took Rangers to the top of the Premiership table, albeit for a couple of hours.

But, as fleeting as that lead was, it was a reminder to Celtic that they will not have matters all their own way.

It also served as an admonishment to Hearts, who have backed themselves to start closing the gap between themselves and the Old Firm.

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After a tricky September, where Rangers fans had been unsettled by defeat to the Parkhead side and a sticky and nervy climax to their win over lowly Dundee United, especially when sandwiched in between one-sided Champions League results against Ajax and Napoli, their trip to Edinburgh had the potential to wreak further havoc.

Rangers' Antonio Colak celebrates making it 2-0 during his side's Premiership victory over Hearts. Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group
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If Hearts could win by a two-goal margin, they would leapfrog them and move into second spot, and there was belief in the capital camp that they could. But, in the end, in a close and unforgiving league, Robbie Neilson’s men ended the day in sixth, as Aberdeen, Hibs and St Mirren overhauled them, and the pressure that had been building on Ibrox boss Giovanni van Bronckhorst dissipated.

With their next stop Anfield for their latest European test, against Liverpool, it was a timely reprieve.

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The fact they were able to cruise through most of the game, conserving energy, was an added bonus.

Two goals up within the first half an hour thanks to an Antonio Colak double was one thing, but the extra man advantage they enjoyed after Cammy Devlin’s red card challenge on Rabbi Matondo in the 39th minute simply strengthened their position.

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Although Rangers have now scored 16 goals in five games, conceding just one, since Hearts last took anything from a head to head, their hosts had been confident that they could make life difficult for their visitors.

There had been a draw in Glasgow this time last year and the season prior to that Hearts had made the most of home advantage chalking up two wins and a draw in their league and cup tussles at Tynecastle.

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But that never looked likely this time. When they last faced up, in the Scottish Cup final in May, an early missed Ellis Simms chance had been pivotal. Presented the early opening this time around, Rangers proved more clinical.

Antonio Colak was the sixth-minute scorer. He had been given the nod ahead of Alfred Morelos, despite the Columbian striker’s impressive return against Hearts. Morelos was to add to his tally when he eventually came on as a substitute - making it 10 goals in nine games against the Gorgie outfit - but by then Colak had netted a couple as the battle for a starting berth brought out the best in both front men.

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Hearts had actually started on the front foot, with Neilson sending out a side set up to have a go. There was only switch from the side that defeated Motherwell prior to the international break and that saw forward Stephen Humphrys come into the starting line-up in place of former Rangers man Andy Halliday.

It was a positive switch and the Englishman proved one of the more dangerous players in the home ranks but while there were some adventurous back heels, neat one-twos and players probing for a way through, the final ball was blunted by a well-drilled and impenetrable Rangers rearguard.

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The same resolve was not evident in the Hearts defence, which looked shaky. It is an area of the team that has been juggled about frequently due to injuries, but rarely has it looked as vulnerable as it did when trying to marshall the Rangers frontline.

Stephen Kingsley celebrated another Scotland cap through the weak but deployed in the left centre-back role, alongside young Lewis Neilson, the usually-dependable defender, who fully merited his international call up, produced one of his poorest Hearts displays and he struggled to balance his penchant for pushing forward with the need to plug gaps at the back.

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His failure to do that led to the opening goal, as Colak ultisied the space behind him and rose to send a Ryan Kent cross in off the inside of the post.

In the 30th minute he made it two. This time he drifted off Kingsley in the middle of the box and Matondo picked him out. He finished clinically from a tight angle.

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Hearts refused to be cowed, though, and Devlin personified that determination to find a way back into the contest, chasing about the pitch, closing down, winning possession and trying to ensure play ticked over in Hearts favour.

But that passion and combativeness spilled over in the 39th minute as he sought to settle a touchline stalemate between Matondo and Alex Cochrane but caught the Rangers player.

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It provoked a red card and plenty of boos from the stands but it was a needless foul in an innocuous area of the park.

If Rangers had been comfortable at that stage, they were able to switch to cruise control.

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Hearts, sensing the match was beyond them, turned their thoughts to Thursday’s Conference League match against Fiorentina, withdrawing prize assets and those who are carrying niggles.

Rangers also juggled the pack, bringing on the likes of Morelos for Colak in the 63rd minute and it was unlucky for Hearts when he netted 13 minutes later.

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Ryan Kent, grabbing his first goal since December, rounded off a bright day for Rangers and a miserable afternoon for Hearts as the match moved into stoppage time.

Billed as a statement game, as Neilson’s men looked to apply pressure on the big two above them, it simply wasn’t good enough from the Gorgie outfit.

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Rangers had two thirds of possession, three times as many shots at goal and seven times as many on target. The red card was, undoubtedly, a factor but it wasn’t the only one.

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