This was an example of exactly why Hearts are currently leading the Premiership.
Even with key players succumbing to injury, the Gorgie side have stubbornly refused to vacate their lofty position and against one of the top tier’s most consistent teams over the past four seasons, they extended the gap over the chasing pack to three points. They did it with an attacking first half display that rattled Aberdeen and a resolute second half performance that was brimming with character and denied their rejuvenated guests a way to wrestle anything from the match.
Savvy, they played some lovely, high-tempo passing football, and combined it with enough intensity, bite and competitiveness to overrun Derek McInnes’ men in that opening spell, and while the frustrated Pittodrie boss made shrewd switches at the interval to ensure they at least put up more of a fight, with Niall McGinn in particular making a significant impact, Hearts proved yet again that whatever quandaries they face, they tend to meet them with an unflinching desire.
“It was eventful,” said Craig Levein of a feisty match that served up three penalties and 11 yellow cards, while the Aberdeen box was left looking like a battlefield every time there was a deadball delivery into the area, with bodies strewn all over the place as no quarter was asked or given. And that was on the pitch. Off it the management teams were animated and fractious, while Hearts defender Jimmy Dunne was assaulted with a pitchside microphone which was hurled at him by an irate Dons fan. “It was a brilliant game. We didn’t have enough goals to be out of sight at half-time. Aberdeen are an extremely good side, all credit to them because it was tough for us in the second half.
“That was a big test for us after losing last week, our first defeat. We’ve lost players through injury and Peter Haring wasn’t fit enough for today, a big loss, and so it was good to see Oliver Bozanic and Clevid Dikamona come in and do well, and young Marcus Godinho hasn’t even played a reserve match which meant we had to rush him back in. A good day all round.”
Battered by their first defeat of the season in their last league outing to Rangers, and bruised by the news that stand-in captain John Souttar and striker Uche Ikpeazu could both miss up to five months through injury, there was a question mark over their response, but rather than crumble there was a steely resolve to the way the newlook line-up tackled this head to head.
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It took them until the 36th minute to make the breakthrough but the lead was well-merited as they enjoyed around 65 per cent possession and took the game to the visitors from the outset.
Up front Steven Naismith and Steven MacLean showed their class, while Callum Morrison and fullbacks Godinho and Demi Mitchell were also threatening but the opening goal came from Arnaud Djoum.
Andrew Considine had clattered Naismith and when the resultant freekick was played out to Morrison, he had time to pick out Djoum who sent a glancing header past Joe Lewis.
With players going down regularly, the penalty shout in the 42nd minute was not the first, the most vociferous or the last but it was given, rather harshly, as it appeared to be a slip and fall into Lewis Ferguson but as the Aberdeen player went down, his arm hit the ball and the referee deemed it intentional.
Naismith didn’t complain and instead just slammed it clinically into Lews’s net to give his side a two goal cushion.
It would be needed as Aberdeen rearraged personnel and substitute McGinn gave them width and ideas and others such as Graeme Shinnie upped their intensity levels and started to compete.
They clawed one back when McGinn was brought down by Godinho and Gary Mackay-Steven converted the spot kick . He could have levelled with minutes remaining but Zdenek Zlamal made a wonderful diving save.
Hearts could have been out of sight by then but Lewis saved a second Naismith spot kick after Shay Logan was penalised for a pull on debutant Sean Clare and the keeper also denied both Djoum and Mitchell from point blank range. But James Wilson was left to hang his head in shame when he missed a golden opportunity at the other end. But while Aberdeen offered more in the second period, it was not enough.
“I just wanted my team to make more of a fist of it. But the second goal is ultimately what separates the two teams. We made the changes and were far better. But Hearts were fantastic in the first half and I think for the first time in a long time, they’ve got a decent team here.
“The crowd have bought into it and it’ll be tough for any team to come here. We can’t win the game playing for 45 minutes but I wasn’t happy with a lot of decisions and if some of them go our way and play the way we did in the second half, we might get something from the game.”