Moving into sixth place in the Premiership table wouldn’t normally be regarded by Rangers as cause for celebration but there was no doubting the significance of this victory for Steven Gerrard’s team.
In inflicting a first defeat of the season on league leaders Hearts, the Ibrox men extended their own unbeaten home record under Gerrard and enhanced their ambitions of mounting a credible and sustained challenge for the title.
Rangers effectively claimed all three points before half-time, goals from Ryan Kent, Alfredo Morelos and Scott Arfield securing a 3-0 lead which belied the highly competitive nature of an engaging affair. Hearts were left to reflect ruefully on lapses in concentration at the back which allowed their hosts to build their commanding advantage.
Jimmy Dunne pulled a goal back midway through the second half for Craig Levein’s team who, by that stage, had been reduced to 10 men after Michael Smith was sent off for two bookable offences.
Amid his frustration at the self-inflicted wounds suffered by his side, however, Levein can console himself with the knowledge they remain top of the Premiership table, albeit with just five points now covering the top six clubs.
This was a high octane affair from the start as Hearts rolled into town clearly determined to try and impose themselves on Rangers, as indicated by Levein’s attack-minded team selection with Uche Ikpeazu returning from injury to line up alongside Steven MacLean and Steven Naismith.
During the breathless opening spell, a scoreline of 2-2 would have been a fairer reflection as the teams went toe-to-toe but instead the visitors found themselves facing an uphill battle as Rangers ruthlessly punished some slovenly defending.
Hearts claimed in vain for an offside decision at Kent’s third minute opener but got it badly wrong as they advanced en masse when James Tavernier floated a free-kick into the penalty area. Morelos, played onside by Ikpeazu, nipped in to collect the ball and square it unselfishly to the unchallenged Kent for a simple close range finish.
The visitors’ response was swift and purposeful. But for the excellence of Allan McGregor, it might easily have seen them effect a rapid turnaround. The Rangers goalkeeper made two fine saves in quick succession, first of all blocking a shot from Naismith who had wriggled free in the box and then reacting sharply to keep out an effort from Ikpeazu after the big striker had shrugged off a challenge from Joe Worrall with some ease.
The absorbing ebb and flow of proceedings continued as Rangers called Zdenek Zlamal into action at the other end, the Czech ‘keeper doing well to save a low shot from Jon Flanagan after the full-back had latched onto Kent’s lay-off.
But Zlamal was left exposed and helpless by a costly error from Demetri Mitchell as Rangers made it 2-0 in the 12th minute. The on-loan Manchester United full-back was caught in possession by Daniel Candeias whose cross to the near post was met by a superbly improvised first time flick from Morelos to claim his 11th goal of the season.
On what was a busy afternoon for referee John Beaton, he produced his yellow card for the first time two minutes later with Smith the recipient following a foul on Ovie Ejaria. It left the Hearts right-back walking a tightrope from which he would ultimately fall to leave his team short-handed for most of the second half.
Before then, Levein’s side continued to try and take the contest to Rangers with the physicality of Ikpeazu causing some discomfort for the home defence. The Hearts front man appealed optimistically for a penalty when he went down under a challenge from Connor Goldson but it appeared to be blatant simulation.
There was still a sense that a goal for the visitors could significantly alter the dynamic of the match but it was Rangers who exerted an even firmer grip on it when they added their third goal in the 32nd minute. A cross from Tavernier from the right looked as if it had over-hit but Morelos did well to get on the end of it at the far post and Zlamal could only parry his header, the ball breaking to Arfield who tucked home a shot from close range.
When Smith was sent off 10 minutes after the restart - he could have little complaint as he cynically blocked off Flanagan on the edge of the penalty area - it seemed as if Hearts would simply be indulging in a damage limitation exercise for the rest of the afternoon.
But, while Zlamal was forced into a smart save to prevent Kent making it 4-0 shortly after Smith’s dismissal, they dug in and performed admirably with 10 men. They reduced the deficit in the 67th minute when Dunne guided in a header from Olly Lee’s free-kick and might have ensured a nervous finale for Rangers had Arnaud Djoum not directed a shot too close to McGregor when he was presented with a glorious chance with 10 minutes remaining.
Rangers, who named the same starting line-up which had accounted for Rapid Vienna in the Europa League on Thursday night, have now won nine and drawn the other of their 10 games at Ibrox under Gerrard in all competitions.
Rangers: McGregor, Tavernier, Goldson, Worrall, Flanagan; Coulibaly, Arfield (Halliday 84), Ejaria (Jack 67); Candeias (Lafferty 87), Morelos, Kent. Subs not used: Foderingham, Katic, McCrorie, Middleton.
Hearts: Zlamal, Smith, Dunne, Souttar, Mitchell (Wighton 79); Haring, Lee (Garuccio 73), Djoum, Naismith, MacLean (Dikamona 57), Ikpeazu. Subs not used: Doyle, Bozanic, Amankwaa, Morrison.