Why this victory was so significant - Rangers earn signature win at Hearts as veteran defies laudable effort
At a venue which proved a graveyard in his predecessor’s pursuit of silverware on more than one occasion, Giovanni van Bronckhorst secured his most significant victory yet since replacing Steven Gerrard as Rangers manager.
Two goals inside the opening quarter of an hour, from Alfredo Morelos and Joe Aribo, were enough to claim all three points from a fixture which, on paper, looked as challenging as any of those facing the Scottish champions in a congested December schedule.
So it proved against a Hearts side who will feel with some justification that their performance merited a better outcome. But during their best spells of the contest, they were defied by the brilliance of Allan McGregor and, a couple of times, the frame of the veteran Rangers ‘keeper’s goal.
It’s a win which reinforces Rangers' lead at the top of the Premiership table ahead of a notionally more benign sequence of three home games against St Johnstone, Dundee United and St Mirren.
For Hearts, who ended the game with 10 men after Josh Ginnelly’s dismissal for two bookable offences, any prospect of mounting a sustained title challenge has clearly receded.
There was no hint in the initial exchanges of the commanding position Rangers would forge with the quickfire goals from Morelos and Aribo.
It was Hearts who made the more vibrant opening and might easily have been 2-0 to the good themselves inside the first five minutes.
It required a fine save from McGregor, a former pupil of the adjacent Tynecastle High School, to deny Liam Boyce after the Hearts striker had stolen a march on Connor Goldson in pursuit of a long through ball from John Souttar. Boyce would feel he should have scored with his lob, but it was vintage McGregor as he stretched out a hand to touch the ball over.
Rangers were then left exposed down their left flank as Ginnelly burst free and cut the ball back for Cammy Devlin whose shot was superbly blocked by Calvin Bassey.
Having weathered that storm, Rangers struck back in devastating fashion. Their ninth-minute breakthrough came from their first attacking move of any note, Ryan Kent skipping beyond Taylor Moore down the left and floating over a cross.
It found its way to Fashion Sakala on the right of the box and the Zambian showed neat footwork to beat Devlin and set up Morelos for an emphatic finish low beyond Craig Gordon.
Sakala should have doubled the lead two minutes later when he dragged a shot wide after more sparkling work from Kent but Rangers’ second goal was only delayed until the 13th minute.
Goldson’s long passes out of defence should be no secret to anyone in Scottish football anymore but they continue to bear fruit on a regular basis for Rangers. His raking ball through the middle certainly caught out the Hearts defence as Aribo timed his run to perfection, matching it with a good first touch and unerring low left foot finish across Gordon into the corner of the net.
Neilson’s men had every reason to feel shell-shocked but, to their great credit, they got themselves back onto the front foot as they looked for the response needed to drag themselves back into contention.
They were the more aggressive and threatening side for the remainder of the first half, albeit Rangers could now afford to adopt a more pragmatic approach.
McGregor made two more significant contributions before the break, coming off his line sharply to smother the ball at the feet of Ginnelly and saving well from Boyce who had been played in by Devlin.
The pattern continued in the second half with McGregor at his best again to keep out a shot from Gary Mackay-Steven after one of several imaginative corner kick routines from Hearts.
While Rangers generally defended robustly, they rode their luck at times and Calvin Bassey almost notched up his second own goal of the week after putting through his own net against Lyon on Thursday night. This time, he got away with it as his attempt to cut out Ginnelly’s cross smashed off the underside of the crossbar.
Rangers could have put the match completely beyond Hearts’ reach as they suddenly upped their own attacking tempo. It was now Craig Gordon’s turn to show his ageless quality as the Hearts goalkeeper made terrific saves to keep out Scott Arfield and Sakala.
Arfield should have made the closing stages totally stress-free for Rangers but he shanked a shot wide with the goal gaping after Gordon had made another fine stop from Morelos.
It allowed Hearts to retain hope of staging a late comeback. Boyce blazed a shot over when it looked easier to score, then Stephen Kingsley was desperately unlucky to see his sweetly struck free-kick cannon off the crossbar with McGregor beaten.
The game was just about up for Hearts when Ginnelly departed with nine minutes remaining. Booked for dissent in the first half, he earned his second caution for an off-the-ball flare-up with Borna Barisic, who was also shown a yellow card.
Although McGregor had to top his afternoon off with a tremendous double-save from Ben Woodburn and Boyce, a valuable and well-earned victory was safely seen out by Rangers.
Hearts (4-2-3-1): Gordon, Moore, Souttar, Halkett, Kingsley; Haring, Devlin (Gnanduillet 86); Ginnelly, McKay, Mackay-Steven (Woodburn 74); Boyce. Subs not used: Stewart, Walker, McEneff, Halliday, Cochrane.
Rangers (4-3-3): McGregor, Tavernier, Goldson, Bassey, Barisic; Arfield, Kamara, Aribo; Sakala (Lundstram 82), Morelos (Wright 72), Kent. Subs not used: McLaughlin, Hagi, Davis, Patterson, Bacuna.
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