Hearts fell further behind Aberdeen in the race for European football as Jonny Hayes’ 66th-minute strike earned the Dons a comfortable and well-deserved 1-0 win at Tynecastle.
Derek McInnes’ men are now six points clear of the Jambos in third place in the Ladbrokes Premiership with a game in hand as the league goes on a four-week hiatus, with Rangers a further two points clear in second spot ahead of their clash with Celtic tomorrow.
Aberdeen comprehensively outplayed the hosts and would have triumphed by a greater margin had it not been for some wasteful finishing and some good goalkeeping from Jack Hamilton.
Hearts head coach Ian Cathro made two enforced changes to the side that dismantled Kilmarnock 4-0 just three days prior to this match, with Don Cowie coming in for Prince Buaben, who failed to shrug off a calf strain, and Liam Smith replacing the unfortunate Callum Paterson at right-back, with the Scotland internationalist in attendance at Tynecastle sporting a knee brace. Aberdeen were unchanged from the team that defeated Hamilton 2-1 on Tuesday.
The Dons were intent on testing out Smith, with Hayes in particular probing down Hearts’ right-hand side. They ought to have taken the lead on 15 minutes when Mark Reynolds rose unmarked to meet Niall McGinn’s inswinging corner, but his header from seven yards out went narrowly wide of Hamilton’s goal.
Hearts responded with an attack of their own, with Ash Taylor booked for hauling down Bjorn Johnsen as the striker threatened to wriggle clear of him. The free-kick was some 30 yards out and, although Jamie Walker struck it well, it was too close to Dons keeper Joe Lewis and he held comfortably.
Aberdeen continued to barrage Hearts’ right-flank and only a top save from Hamilton denied Kenny McLean from close range just before the half-hour mark after McGinn had skinned Smith and put in a sumptuous cross. Four minutes later, the hosts had Hamilton to thank again as Aberdeen doubled up on Smith, with Shinnie’s drilled cross finding McGinn at the back post, only for the keeper to poke out a leg and send the ball behind for a corner.
It seemed a matter of time before the Dons would break the deadlock and they came even closer on 36 minutes when Rooney and Taylor both had sclaffed efforts from close range blocked before the ball cannoned off Smith an squirmed millimetres past Hamilton’s right-hand post.
Their final chance of a very one-sided half came on 42 minutes when Shinnie was allowed time and space to fire off a shot from distance that struck the post, with the rebound falling unkindly for the onrushing Rooney as he bundled it wide. Hearts would no doubt have been thankful to go in level at the break.
Hearts moved Krystian Nowak into the centre of defence to make a 5-3-2 as they attempted to reinforce their backline, but Aberdeen continued right from where they left off in the second 45 minutes, McLean’ shot deflecting up and into the grateful grasp of Hamilton.
The hosts’ first moment of note in a second half came on 63 minutes when Smith powered a Cowie corner over Lewis’ bar. Hearts had momentarily quelled Aberdeen’s momentum, but that was to all change on 66 minutes when McGinn’s excellent delivery from the right was hammered beyond Hamilton by Hayes to give the Dons a lead they ultimately merited.
Cathro urged his Hearts side on from the touchline in search of an equaliser but, bar a couple of driving runs from Walker, they couldn’t make any real headway. In an attempt to liven up Hearts’ attack, the head coach withdrew Djoum – who had a quiet match – for striker Rory Currie on 73 minutes as the teenager joined Johnsen in attack.
The alteration did little to change the course of the game, with Aberdeen again coming close on 82 minutes when McLean’s shot on the turn was well held by Hamilton. Cathro then made his second substitution, bringing on attacker Robbie Muirhead for defender Igor Rossi, who punched the dugout in frustration at a difficult night for him and his fellow defenders.
As the clock ticked towards full-time and Aberdeen naturally went into their shell a little, Hearts manufactured their best chance of the match thus far. Walker grabbed possession on the edge of the box, spun Taylor and fired off a strong shot that Lewis did well to turn round the post.
McInnes took off the impressive McGinn for Anthony O’Connor to put an extra defender on and, although Hearts had a last-gasp chance when Cowie headed over from close range, they never truly looked like a side able to worry an organised Aberdeen rearguard,
Fourth-placed Hearts are now only three points clear of St Johnstone in fifth – who have two games in hand – as they go into the winter break needing to regroup ahead of their next match, a Scottish Cup tie away at Raith Rovers on Sunday, January 22.
Hearts (4-1-3-1-1): Hamilton; L Smith, Souttar, Rossi (Muirhead 82), Rherras; Nowak; Walker, Kitchen, Cowie; Djoum (Currie 73); Johnsen. Subs: Noring, Oshaniwa, Ozturk, Zanatta, Sammon.
Aberdeen (4-2-3-1): Lewis; Logan, Taylor, Reynolds, Considine; Jack, Shinnie; McGinn (O’Connor 87), McLean, Hayes; Rooney. Subs: Alexander, Burns, Pawlett, Maddison, Stockley, Storey.
Referee: W Collum