IN-FORM Dundee United overwhelmed Hearts to record a deserved victory over the league’s bottom side.
Brian Graham deputised for the suspended Nadir Ciftci and scored two goals, whilst Gary Mackay-Steven and John Rankin completed a convincing scoreline on a bitingly cold day at Tannadice.
Graham bundled the opening goal home after Mackay-Steven had unlocked the Hearts defence, but Jamie Hamill’s swift equaliser from the penalty spot restored parity and granted the visitors some confidence. It lasted until the early moments of the second half when Graham planted a header high into the net from a corner.
Mackay-Steven’s third was the pick of the goals as United continued a winning sequence in which they have now scored 17 goals in their last four outings. Rankin’s fourth merely put an extra shine on the afternoon for the home team.
United were clear favourites prior to kick-off having struck 13 goals in their last three matches. Hearts, of course, were seeking a response to last week’s 7-0 Scottish Cup humbling by Celtic. An early looping volley from distance by the diminutive Ryan Gauld signalled the hosts’ intent, with Jamie MacDonald pushing the ball over his crossbar for a corner.
It took merely another few minutes for United to fashion their opening goal. An intelligent lob from Mackay-Steven found Stuart Armstrong in behind the Hearts defence, and his shot evaded MacDonald on its way to goal. Graham slid in with Kevin McHattie and looked to get the final touch inches from the goal line.
Hearts’ response was almost instant as Jamie Walker earned a penalty when he was tripped going past the United right-back Mark Wilson. From 12 yards, Hamill calmly converted low to goalkeeper Radoslaw Cierzniak’s left for the equaliser.
As the first half progressed, the sight of Tangerine shirts galloping forward became evermore regular. Stuart Armstrong was denied a goal by a superb last-second tackle from Kevin McHattie, and Armstrong shot over the crossbar when hitting the target looked simpler.
The second half began with an acrobatic save from MacDonald to stop Rankin’s vicious 20-yard attempt. United were clearly intent on regaining the advantage, which they did four minutes after the restart when Graham rose unchallenged to head Mark Wilson’s corner powerfully home from eight yards. Hearts claimed a foul in the penalty box just as the corner was taken and complained bitterly to fourth official Craig Charleston, but to no avail.
The remainder of the game was dominated by the home team in full flow. Shots rained in from Gauld, Wilson, and Mackay-Steven amongst others, with Hearts fighting to stay in the game. If there was one positive for the travelling support from Edinburgh, it was the performance of winger Jamie Walker. He tormented Wilson whenever he was in possession but could not create an elusive second equaliser.
With minutes remaining, Gauld retrieved the ball after MacDonald parried an attempt from Armstrong. The teenager fed Mackay-Steven to lash United’s third goal - a delightful left-footed finish high into the top corner. Rankin strode forward to hit the fourth via a deflection and finish off a miserable afternoon for Hearts.
Dundee Utd (4-2-3-1): Cierzniak; Wilson (Watson 89), Souttar, Dillon, Robertson (Gomis 89); Paton, Rankin; Mackay-Steven, Gauld, Armstrong; Graham (Goodwillie 86). Subs: McCallum, Butcher, Dow, Erskine.
Hearts (4-3-3): MacDonald; McGhee, McGowan, Wilson, McHattie; Robinson, Hamill, Tapping (B King 67); Paterson, Stevenson (Carrick 75), Walker. Subs: Hamilton, McKay, Smith, A King, Nicholson.
Referee: Craig Thomson.