RUDI SKACEL’S phenomenal hat-trick helped ten-man Hearts accelerate to third place in the Scottish Premier League as St Mirren were totally overwhelmed in an enthralling game at Tynecastle.
Marius Zaliukas was dismissed after scoring the opening goal and the visitors quickly built a 2-1 advantage through Paul McGowan’s penalty and Steven Thompson’s header. Then Skacel took over with three stunning efforts, all struck from more than 20 yards, before John Sutton completed the scoring in the final minute.
The result propels Hearts above Motherwell, who lost at Inverness, and continues an impressive recent sequence which now reads five wins and a draw from six games for the Edinburgh club. Their players displayed unquenchable spirit to recover from Zaliukas’ red card - issued for denying McGOwan clear scoring chance - and overturn the 2-1 deficit. Once in front, they became rampant.
Much of the reslience was down to Skacel, the undisputed man-of-the-match. The Czech’s contract expires at the end of the month but when the DVD of this match arrives at Vladimir Romanov’s headquarters in Lithuania, it must surely convince the majority shareholder to make sure he retains this talismanic figure.
With David Templeton, Andy Driver and Danny Grainger injured, and Ryan McGowan suspended, the Hearts manager Paulo Sergio had to reorganise his squad. However his players were unflustered by the changes and opened the scoring after only 51 seconds of play. Ian Black’s corner arrived for the onrushing Zaliukas to head powerfully beyond Craig Samson. St Mirren’s marking was utterly atrocious but that was of little concern to the buoyant home side.
Zaliukas went from hero to villain inside 11 minutes by conceding a penalty and earning an instant red card for denying McGowan a clear goalscoring opportunity. Kenny McLean’s intelligent through ball found McGowan scampering in behind the Hearts defence. When the SPL Player of the Month fell was nudged off the ball by Zaliukas, referee Steven McLean pointed immediately to the penalty spot and dismissed the Tynecastle captain. McGowan calmly drove the penalty high to Marian Kello’s left to level the scores - then was booked for some inflammatory celebrations.
Facing a numerical disadvantage, Hearts looked disjointed and fell behind in the 18th minute. Adrian Mrowiec had reverted to centre-back to deputise for Zaliukas but was caught dreadfully static when Marc McAusland’s right-sided cross dropped 18 yards from goal. Thompson was the opposite and sprung high above the Pole to nod a looping header over Kello and into the net.
The game continued in frantic fashion when Hearts restored parity through Skacel’s first blockbuster. The Czech dispossessed Graham Carey to dispatch a ferocious shot high into the St Mirren net from 25 yards for his seventh goal of the campaign. It was a definite contender for goal of the season in a game that was looking difficult to better for sheer entertainment and drama.
Little changed in the second half, although it should be noted that both teams played plenty fluent, attractive football throughout this encounter. The ten men of Hearts showed their relentless work ethic to defend and attack in numbers and Stephen Elliott shot high from a central position on 54 minutes. Kello then beat Carey’s drive away to prevent a certain goal.
Just as it seemed they might be starting to tire, Hearts produced another goal. Or, more accurately, Skacel did. Sutton laid Jamie Hamill’s throw back to the Czech, again more than 20 yards out, for another trademark left-footed drive which angled away from Samson and nestled in the corner. St Mirren’s Lee Mair and Jeroen Tesselaar argued over who was responsible but by then Skacel was off taking deserved acclaim from his idolising public.
The decibel level rose another notch four minutes later when the irrepressible midfielder completed his hat-trick. Black won possession and supplied Skacel with the ball. He evaded the persistent David Barron and, with another 20-odd yarder, slotted his finish out of Samson’s reach. You had to feel sorry for the St Mirren goalkeeper because in this form Skacel cannot be stopped.
There was still time for a fifth from Sutton, who converted a free-kick laid into his path by Black’s after Samson picked up Tesselaar’s backpass. But by then there was little doubt over the destination of the three points. Hearts closed out the match in professional fashion and left the field to rousing applause. This was a hard-faught victory but one they thoroughly deserved to move in behind the Old Firm at the top end of the league.
Hearts (4-3-1-2): Kello; Hamill, Webster, Zaliukas, Barr; Robinison, Mrowiec, Black (Novikovas 90); Skacel (Suso 90); Sutton, Elliott (Obua 86). Subs: MacDonald, Novikovas, Glen, Hamilton, Holt.
St Mirren (4-1-4-1): Samson; Van Zanten (Thomson 75), McAusland, Mair, Tesselaar; Barron; Teale (Hasselbaink 75), McGowan, McLean, Carey; Thompson. Subs: Smith, Mooy, Thomson, Murray, Reilly, Naismith.
Referee: Steven McLean.