The missing qualities at Hearts as Livingston complete Edinburgh double with deserved win

With their maiden Europa Conference League appearance on the horizon, Livingston would have been well down the list of preferred opponents, especially away from home, for Hearts boss Robbie Neilson ahead of a meeting with Istanbul Başakşehir at Tynecastle Park.

There is always an element of trepidation heading to West Lothian to face David Martindale’s side. Even more so when there is the sense they have a point to prove.

On paper, a team who had lost their last three games, one of which a 5-0 reverse to Aberdeen, appeared to be ideal opposition. But listening to Martindale undergo plenty of soul searching and contemplation in an interview after the Premier Cup Sports defeat to Dundee United, when the team were favourites to progress to the quarter-final, provided an indication that a meeting with their Lothian neighbours would see a response.

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And so it transpired. Cristian Montano’s first-half strike handed the home side their third league win of the campaign, completing the Edinburgh double having already defeated Hibs.

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Martindale was well aware of the challenge and the Scottish football fundamentals which were required. He called Hearts, with a full first-team squad, the third best team in the league “by a distance”.

A certain phrase used was pertinent. The full first-team squad. Hearts arrived in West Lothian without Craig Halkett, Kye Rowles and Liam Boyce. Michael Smith, Peter Haring, Lawrence Shankland and Alan Forrest all started on the bench having started in the midweek loss to Kilmarnock in the League Cup.

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Putting fitness and injury issues to one side as games come thick and fast for the team who breezed to third in the Scottish Premiership last season, there is something missing at the moment.

The visitors started excellently, dominating possession and territory. Gary Mackay-Steven and Alex Cochrane worked well down the left and got plenty of joy. New signing Steven Humphrys and Jorge Grant missed chances. Then nothing.

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Cristian Montano celebrates putting Livingston ahead against Hearts. (Photo by Paul Devlin / SNS Group)

Livingston got a foothold in the game and Hearts slowly but surely became passive participants.

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Montano was allowed to run onto a free-kick, take a touch in the middle of the box and slot past Craig Gordon. Hearts players appealed to the linesman but the Livi left-back, excellent throughout, was well onside.

Hearts issues

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It now means Hearts have started the season without a clean sheet in nine. A run which stretches to 13 games going back to last season. The worst defensive run since the 2013/14 season when the club were relegated.

Craig Gordon kept Hearts in the game in the second half. (Photo by Paul Devlin / SNS Group)
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That is just one part of the issue.

In attack, Hearts can be guilty of running out of ideas, especially if Barrie McKay is not on form, as was the case at the Tony Macaroni Arena.

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There will have been plenty in the visiting support envious of Joel Nouble. A huge presence in the final third, someone who can get the ball down, run and commit opponents. An X-Factor, a chaos factor.

It was a team effort from Livingston, however, Jason Holt, Scott Pittman and Stephane Omeonga onto every second ball.

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The game may have finished 1-0 but they could have easily made the scoreline more comfortable. Esmael Goncalves, against his old club, missed a great chance in the first half, while Gordon was called into action twice in the second half.

Shamal George? A quiet afternoon.

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Livingston (4-3-2-1): George; Devlin, Kelly, Obileye, Montano (Longridge 83’); Omeonga (Kelly 81’), Holt, Penrice (Bahamboula 56’); Goncalves (Guthrie 56’); Pittman; Nouble.

Hearts (4-3-3): Gordon; Sibbick, Neilson, Kingsley, Cochrane; Devlin (Haring 56’), Halliday (Henderson 83’), Grant (Shankland 56’); McKay, Humphrys (Ginnelly 65'), Mackay-Steven (Forrest 56’).

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