Hearts will have to travel to Ibrox without Uche Ikpeazu on Wednesday but if they head into that game with greater self-belief on the back of Saturday’s triumph over Aberdeen, then the Englishman will have played his part.
An accidental, second-half clash of heads left the Gorgie striker disorientated as he departed the arena prematurely and he will have to pass concussion protocols before being permitted to play again. But while he was on the pitch he played a telling role in securing the victory that closes the gap on Aberdeen, who are now only two points ahead of them, and ramping up the pressure on all their rivals for a guaranteed European spot.
Derek McInnes’ Pittodrie side had looked comfortable throughout the first half, handling the power and threat of Hearts forward options and dominating the midfield courtesy of impressive performances by Lewis Ferguson and Graeme Shinnie. They converted that into a lead in the 16th minute as Sam Cosgrove rose to head goalwards. He was denied but Connor MacLennan reacted swiftly to nod the rebound into the net.
The second half brought a turnaround in fortunes as the hosts wrested control of the game away from their guests and, although they had a few penalty shouts throughout the 90 minutes, the only one awarded, when Andy Considine stuck out a leg to halt speedy Jake Mulraney’s progress just before the hour mark, was dispatched past Joe Lewis by Sean Clare to level the scoreline.
Ikpeazu, who had been closely marshalled by Considine and Scott McKenna, showed himself to be more than just brawn in the 77th minute and, with nimble feet and clever running, managed to elude the challenges of both his markers, compose himself and then pass the ball into the net.
It was reward for his indefatigable spirit and well-earned by a Hearts side that had emerged from the tunnel after the break and, against a side looking to extend their unbeaten run in away games beyond nine, showed great character. Having assumed control, they never relinquished their grip.
“We knew before the game how big this was,” said Hearts defender John Souttar, right. “We were on the back foot for a lot of the first half but we showed a lot of character to come back and play the way we did.”
Having been overtaken by rivals Hibernian the previous night, they needed the win to regain the ascendancy and to bolster their hopes of leapfrogging Aberdeen and Kilmarnock before the end of the campaign. They now have games against Rangers in midweek and Hibs on Saturday before the trip to Hampden to face Inverness Caledonian Thistle in the Scottish Cup semi-final. Despite early concerns, Ikpeazu is now expected to be available for the latter fixtures but has been ruled out of the trip to Govan.
“It’s unfortunate as we’ve been so unlucky with injuries this year,” said Souttar, who has previously been sidelined in similar circumstances. “I was back after a week but it depends on the individual. You have to go through different tests. Fingers crossed it won’t be long. But he’s unplayable when he plays like that. Having worked with him, I don’t think many centre-halves would relish going up against him.”
The Aberdeen players certainly left the capital bruised by their encounter, mentally as much as physically, as Ikpeazu dealt with their close marking and ground them down.
“He is a handful and awkward to play against,” said Aberdeen defender McKenna. “I thought we dealt with him reasonably well in the first half, but in the second half we lost a bit of concentration, a bit of discipline, and let him get the better of us. We switched off at half-time and they came out all guns blazing.”
“He’s a great asset for us. He’s a great boy as well,” added Souttar. “Everyone focuses on his power and strength but he’s got quality as well. He’s not just a battering ram. He’ll be a big loss.”
But the Gorgie side will have to try to find a way to win without him as they attempt to turn the screw on an Aberdeen side now well aware of the pressure they are under. “It’s our own fault and we need to try to put things right, starting with a win [against Motherwell] in midweek,” said McKenna. “I don’t think we can afford to slip up between now and the end of the season.”