Rangers provided a strong response to Steven Gerrard’s demand they do not allow their season to fizzle out meekly as they ended a five-match winless run with a comprehensive victory over a listless Hearts side.
Gerrard’s men may now only be delaying the inevitable as they trail in Celtic’s slipstream at the top of the Premiership table but they showed a determination to make the champions wait as long as possible to clinch the title.
It was as impressive a display as Rangers have produced for some time and indicated they can cope with the month-long absence of top scorer Alfredo Morelos as he began a four-match suspension for his red card in Sunday’s defeat at Celtic Park.
First-half goals from Jermain Defoe and Connor Goldson put them firmly in command before Scott Arfield’s early second half strike wrapped up the points.
The absence of Morelos saw Defoe handed his first starting appearance since February and the veteran former England striker delivered an early declaration of his intent to make the most of the opportunity.
He beat Hearts goalkeeper Zdenek Zlamal with a fine finish inside the opening 90 seconds, latching onto Ryan Jack’s pass after John Souttar had been dispossessed on the edge of the penalty area, but the effort was ruled out by a tight offside decision.
It was clear Rangers were fired up to get the despair of Sunday’s Old Firm defeat out of their systems as quickly as possible as they secured a stranglehold of possession and placed Hearts under constant pressure.
Defoe found space in the box again in the fifth minute and this time saw his close range shot deflected wide for a corner.
Hearts were struggling to make any headway out of their own half, surrendering the ball quickly and often cheaply on the rare occasions in came their way. Rangers captain James Tavernier had the visitors on their heels once more when he surged into the box, sending in a cross which Christophe Berra scrambled behind.
It was relentless, one-way traffic at this stage with Rangers producing some eye-catching and incisive football in the attacking third. One especially slick move ended with Tavernier lashing in a shot from 20 yards which Zlamal fisted to safety.
Gerrard’s only concern on the touchline would be the failure of his team to capitalise on their total dominance but he was soon joining the applause of the home fans when they did make it count with two goals in a five minute burst.
Defoe claimed the 16th minute opener with the kind of instinctive and predatory finish that has been a trademark of his career. Arfield’s threaded pass to Tavernier saw the full-back’s shot spin into the air off Zlamal and when the ball dropped, Defoe was there to slam it home via the underside of the crossbar.
Rangers had the bit firmly between their teeth and doubled the lead from a set piece. Tavernier floated in a free-kick from the right and Hearts were guilty of sloppy marking as Goldson got ahead of Peter Haring to guide a close range header beyond Zlamal.
The prospect of a heavy defeat was staring Hearts firmly in the face but they finally roused themselves into a meaningful response. Allan McGregor was called into action for the first time when he held a Berra header from Oliver Bozanic’s free-kick, then the Rangers ‘keeper excelled himself with a brilliant reaction save to turn another close range effort from the Hearts captain over his crossbar.
Hearts were now threatening to force their way back into the match but they almost fell completely out of contention on the stroke of half-time when, after Ryan Kent had been floored by a clumsy Jamie Brandon challenge, Joe Worrall might have done better than head over from Tavernier’s precisely delivered free-kick.
Rangers began the second half clearly determined to rediscover the tempo and dynamism of their opening half hour and it duly brought them their third goal just two minutes after the restart. Another top quality delivery from the right by Tavernier picked out Defoe in space and his first time shot was brilliantly parried by Zlamal diving to his right. The ball broke to Arfield who was rewarded for being more alive to the situation than the Hearts defence as he slammed a left foot shot high into the net.
Any hopes the visitors had of a recovery were well and truly quashed in that moment as Rangers picked up momentum again and eagerly looked to add to their tally. Substitute Ross McCrorie fired narrowly over from 20 yards for the hosts, then Defoe came close with a similar effort.
Eros Grezda struck Zamal’s right hand post with a close range header and although Brandon rattled McGregor’s left hand upright with a stinging effort in stoppage time, this was a night to forget for Hearts who must now lift themselves for Saturday’s Edinburgh derby.
RANGERS: McGregor, Tavernier, Goldson, Worrall, Flanagan; Kamara, Jack (McCrorie 61), Davis, Arfield (Grezda 68), Kent, Defoe (Lafferty 78). Subs not used: Foderingham, Katic, Coulibaly, Candeias.
HEARTS: Zlamal, Souttar, Berra, Shaughnessy; Godinho (Burns 59), Haring, Bozanic, Brandon; Clare (Keena 59), Djoum (Lee 70); Wighton. Subs not used: Doyle, MacLean, Mulraney, Dikamona.