MANY feel Hearts should be seen as credible championship challengers next season. While this might be so, they may also have had a major say where this season’s title is heading.
Hearts dragged themselves off their sick beds to become potential kingmakers as a double from Juanma, his first goals since January, secured what seemed an initially unlikely victory over Aberdeen.
The Pittodrie side’s title chances, if they have finally evaporated, did so in a flurry of missed chances. Aberdeen now have need to look over their shoulder, never mind in front of them. Calculating where they might stand later today is a depressing exercise for the Aberdeen fans, who will be aware Celtic can stretch their lead to eight points with a win at Motherwell.
Hearts, meanwhile, are a clear and present danger to Aberdeen’s hopes of finishing even second. Now just nine points behind, the Tynecastle side could cut this gap to six points with a win at Inverness on Tuesday.
What an advert for Friday night football. What an advert for Scottish football. It was impossible to tear your eyes away from action for fear of missing something significant. Simon Church seemed to have put Aberdeen on their way to a priceless three points in just the fourth minute.
However, they could not even make it to half-time in front, despite almost constant early pressure on the Hearts goal. Juanma struck after 33 minutes to level, prodding home after Scott Brown failed to hold Alim Ozturk’s shot. Juamna then scored the decisive goal in a breathless game just before the hour mark, heading in Jamie Walker’s cross.
By the time Aberdeen took the lead in just the fourth minute, Hearts’ Sam Nicholson had already seen his shot trundle just past the post. From then on, bedlam reigned. It was hugely enjoyable bedlam for the neutral though for fans of both sides, perhaps not so much.
Anxiety grew in the home stands as Aberdeen laid siege on the Hearts goal. But a silent dread began building in the Aberdeen fans as they watched their favourites waste chance after chance.
But the visitors took their first one, Church brilliantly flicking in from close range Kenny McLean’s precise cross after good work from Johnny Hayes on the left as well. This was the start of a quite incredible period of play.
Aberdeen might have been four up by the tenth minute. McGinn prodded past the post from McLean’s cross a couple of minutes after Church’s opener. That should have been 2-0.
McGinn had another chance when latching on to Shay Logan’s ball but Neil Alexander reacted well to come off his line and block. That might, though, have been 3-0. Hayes’ resultant corner was swung into the danger area, where Igor Rossi had a swing at the ball. He could only direct it towards his own goal, Alexander saving well on the line. It could have made it 4-0.
When Logan was left unmarked at the far post from McLean’s cross, heading only into Alexander’s arms, boos rang around the stadium from Hearts fans dismayed by such a poor start. They had suppressed their frustration prior to this, perhaps in recognition of the illness that swept through the club earlier this week. But sympathy was quickly diminishing as Hearts failed to establish a foothold on the game.
There were other half chances, too, for Aberdeen before Hearts finally got their act together. While the away fans were the enjoying the almost total control, they must have had some concern at the profligacy. While it remained 1-0, they perhaps feared rueing these missed chances – and so it proved.
Hearts did have an opportunity to stun Aberdeen amid the almost total one-way traffic in the initial stages when Brown saved well from Augustyn’s header. The high tempo of the game finally relented towards the half hour mark, allowing Hearts some respite.
They caught their breath and began probing forward themselves. Ozturk’s free-kick was tipped over by Brown. When the same player drifted forward again a few minutes later with the ball at his feet the home crowd cried “shooot!”, just as they have done since he planted a 40 yard stoppage time equaliser against Hibs 18 months ago.
He again let fly. The shot was good enough but should have been deal with by Brown. Instead, the Aberdeen goalkeeper could only parry the ball back out, with the alert Juanma tucking the rebound into the net under the noses of the stunned Aberdeen fans.
How had they enjoyed almost total control, missing five or six good chances to extend their lead, and now be level? It was a question they were still asking themselves at the interval, while also lamenting the injury to Ryan Jack that saw their skipper carried off just before half-time, to be replaced by Willo Flood.
Hearts were now, if not in control, very much in the game. A 25 yard effort from Rossi bashed off the post after 54 minutes, and then came the moment that would have seemed ridiculous had someone suggested it about 20 minutes in; Hearts went ahead.
In what a similar move to Aberdeen’s opener, Jamie Walker progressed down the left before sending a cross to the near post, where Juanma managed to get his head to the ball before Brown could intervene.