THERE will be more significant days than this in the life of a normally tumultuous fixture, days when victory is the be-all and end-all, when nothing else matters but the here and now.
Scorers: Rangers - Aluko (29), Little (35), (88)
Bookings: Hearts - Skacel; Rangers - Goian, Whittaker, Bartley
Not the case this time, of course. Sure, Hearts have a European spot to chase, but really it’s the Scottish Cup final they must be obsessing about and Rangers, well, their great battles are taking place a long way from a football field. That said, this was their fourth victory in a row and they were good value for it.
Rangers clearly deserved the points, though Hearts came back at them after falling two goals behind. The hosts had a priceless opportunity to put some heat on their visitors when they were awarded a penalty 15 minutes from the end, but Craig Beattie, cool as you like last week at Hampden, smashed his effort off Allan McGregor’s crossbar and that, pretty much, was that.
For Hearts, there was the last and final kick in the guts when Andrew Little, who had earlier added to Sone Aluko’s opener, tapped in the third. It was Little’s fourth goal in his last four games. Not a bad little run for a player who was, until recently, considered a bit of a non-event at Ibrox.
One piece of class from Aluko lit up a pretty dour opening half. Paulo Sergio got fairly hot and bothered by Calum Murray’s decision to award a free kick when Andy Webster was adjudged to have fouled Maurice Edu, but there was no arguing with the brilliance of the Nigerian thereafter. It was a devilish execution, his shot whipped up and over and into the net away to Jamie MacDonald’s left-hand side.
“It was a soft free-kick,” said Sergio afterwards. “I can’t be happy with that. I don’t want to find excuses for our defeat but I believe that Calum [Murray] was not at his top level. He is a top-level referee and one of the best in the country, but I can’t agree with his decision.”
Lee McCulloch could have made it two soon after but MacDonald came to the rescue in a way he singularly failed to moments later when Little doubled Rangers’ lead following a cross from Lee Wallace that MacDonald fairly flapped at before the striker hooked the ball into his empty net. Sergio wasn’t happy at that one either, claiming that his goalkeeper had been fouled. “The game became easy for Rangers because they scored two goals without doing anything special.”
At 2-0, the cries went up from the visitors’ end, a lusty rendition of Super Rangers being blasted out with the wretched reference to “Fenians” thrown in. Pitiful stuff, repeated later in the day, it has to be said.
We waited for Hearts to stir and they never quite did. Just before the break there was a bout of pinball in the Rangers box but, still, no man in maroon managed to test McGregor until painfully late in the game, not Beattie who was a million miles short of his Hampden best, not Rudi Skacel nor Ian Black either. Too many of Hearts’ go-to men just never got going.
If you wanted proof of that, it came at regular intervals, such as early in the new half when Hearts were at least enjoying decent possession, if not managing to do anything with it. At one point, the ball was rolled to Beattie on the edge of the Rangers’ penalty area and he scooped it tamely over McGregor’s crossbar. Beattie had a hangdog look about him as he watched the ball disappear into the Rangers end stand.
This was the recurring theme for Hearts as they chased the game. Lots of possession, lots of hustle and bustle and no end product. Sergio tried to change it by bringing on Gary Glen and David Templeton and it was the latter who won the penalty when he was tripped by Aluko. Typical of his day and football’s great fickleness, the man who scored a penalty last weekend at Hampden to put his team into the Scottish Cup final smashed his spot-kick off McGregor’s crossbar. Beattie would have been glad to see the end of today.
Beattie’s missed penalty was nothing new, of course. Hearts have failed to convert six of their last ten attempts from the spot, a run of failure that’s both remarkable and remarkably debilitating. “Yes, I believe that we could have got back into it if we’d scored from the penalty,” said Sergio. “We were taking lots of risks and played all of the last 45 minutes trying to score.”
By that he meant that much of the second half was played in Rangers’ half, not that it mattered. When Wallace set-up Little for the third goal no amount of plaintive appealing from the Hearts manager could disguise the fact that his team got what they deserved.
They’ll have better days. As for Rangers, it was a brief moment of light amid awfully dark hour.