Hearts 1 - 3 Rangers: Gers punish limp hosts to strengthen hold on second place
Craig Levein’s players are vying for cup final places and the manager will at least have less of a headache on that front now. Several may have done enough to play their way out of contention already. Hearts twice surrendered possession to Rangers in the opening half to quickly dampen enthusiasm in Gorgie.
The next time Hearts play at Tynecastle - against Kilmarnock on 4 May - the home fans will be bidding the team farewell before Hampden. Levein knows they will need to ensure a happier send-off after many of those left in the home stands today once again voiced their displeasure at full-time. The Hearts manager later said it’s in the fans’ “remit” to do so as he was also angered by such a meek display in the sun.
Intensity levels will inevitably drop having sealed a cup final berth but this performance was viewed as unacceptable by Levein, whose plan to play a pressing game seemed to go awry within minutes. Actor Christopher Walken once observed that he didn’t attend showbiz parties because he tended to think he left a better impression when he wasn’t there. There are a few Hearts players who might understand what he was getting at.
Craig Wighton was promoted to the starting XI minutes before kick-off but might have been better served by staying on the bench. He was robbed of possession in midfield to set in motion a slick move that saw Rangers take the lead with a neat finish from Danel Defoe, who slipped the ball past Zdenek Zlamal after 15 minutes.
Wighton, such a talented footballer, just cannot seem to get going with Hearts. While he can certainly claim lack of preparation was a mitigating factor – he was only told he was starting when Sean Clare returned from the warm-up to confirm he was still feeling the affects of illness – this was a lost opportunity to impress. Wighton took Clare’s place on the right and barely had a touch before he drifted in-field and was robbed of the ball by a strong Jon Flanagan tackle.
Glen Kamara then stepped in to send Defoe clear and there was no surprise what happened next. Ollie Bozanic put his side in danger in almost identical manner to Wighton nine minutes before half-time having been caught in possession, this time by Ryan Jack. The Rangers midfielder carried on his run and was fed by Daniel Candeias. Jack will take pride in noting his finish was as impeccable as that of Defoe, the master marksman.
In contrast to Wighton and Bozanic, those Hearts players missing yesterday did their cause no harm. Peter Haring’s reputation soared further on account of not being implicated in this insipid showing. He is managing a groin issue and worryingly for Hearts fans, Levein could not say whether the midfielder would be ready to return for the final.
It’s also becoming clear getting Steven Naismith back in time for Hampden is a must if Hearts are to stage a shock. Connor Goldson and Nikola Katic showed how to marshal the heavyweight Uche Ikpeazu and Hearts had little else to offer. The absent Clare is another who saw his cup final position all but rubber-stamped, fitness permitting.
As happened seven days earlier at a slightly later hour against Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Hearts left the field at half-time to jeers. There was no redemption earned in the second half this time, however. In fact, things quickly got worse when Katic slid in to make it 3-0 three minutes after the break when Candeias whipped in a cross to the far post following Steven Davis’ short corner.
Hearts did secure a consolation goal through substitute Steven MacLean, who stretched to head in Jake Mulraney’s cross with 16 minutes left, and at the very least managed to avoid defeat in the second half. MacLean delivered ‘up you’ gestures to two stands after scoring and later claimed it was his standard response to stick from his father, who was sitting in the Wheatfield stand.
At least he displayed some fight. Never mind seeking to overcome Celtic on 25 May, on the eve of this game Levein spoke about being desperate to address the matter of their poor record against Rangers this season. Instead the aggregate score now stands at 11-3 in Rangers’ favour after possibly Hearts’ worst performance in four encounters against Steven Gerrard’s men. This will undoubtedly concern Levein as he begins fathoming ways to win the cup and stop Celtic picking up a treble treble. There was little to boost morale here ahead of another tricky fixture away to Hibs next weekend.