FIRST-HALF goals from Kevin McHattie and Soufian El Hassnaoui saw Hearts take three hard-earned points at Falkirk to move six points clear at the top of the SPFL Championship.
Rangers’ draw at Alloa earlier in the day worked to the Edinburgh club’s advantage, teeing up a mouthwatering clash with the Ibrox side at Tynecastle next weekend.
Falkirk produced a spirited response in the second half having been 2-0 down at the interval. They looked well beaten at that stage but substitute Botti Biabi scored to spark hope that they may prise something from this match.
They came close through Joe Shaughnessy in the dying minutes, however Hearts saw the game out to put clear distance between themselves and Rangers in the league table.
After everyone inside the stadium paid their respects to those who lost their lives in World War I, this game began with Hearts in the ascendancy. Soufian El Hassnaoui stung the palms of former Tynecastle goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald on 11 minutes. Prince Buaben then shot into the side netting when he had space to do better a few second beforehand but hesitated.
It took 27 minutes for the visitors to break the deadlock despite them enjoying the bulk of possession. Billy King’s mazy run ended with a through pass for McHattie to turn and drive the ball high into the Falkirk net. The left-back was deputising for Adam Eckersley and took the opportunity to make his mark.
Hearts appealed for a penalty when Jamie Walker fell inside the penalty area whilst racing Joe Shaughnessy for the ball. However, the visiting fans were appeased moments later when their team moved 2-0 ahead. Walker’s low cross from the left was converted by El Hassnaoui from close range, leaving Falkirk facing a hugely difficult task to recover the deficit.
David Smith angled a free-kick wide before the interval but, in truth, Peter Houston’s side were offered little in attack throughout the first half. Substitute Alex Cooper’s free-kick on 51 minutes was their first shot on target, comfortably held by the Hearts goalkeeper Neil Alexander. He also collected David McCracken’s powerful header as the hosts eventually started making a game of it.
They deservedly halved the deficit with 20 minutes remaining. Rory Loy’s ball across the box was helped on by Blair Alston to Biabi, who spun and shot low beyond Alexander with his left foot from an acute angle. The goal allowed Falkirk hope for the closing stages as they now sensed the chance of a point.
The match was contested more keenly as time progressed and that led to several bookings for late tackles. Hearts substitute James Keatings dragged an effort wide from 12 yards after Walker’s low cross. Then, at the opposite end, Shaughnessy connected with Craig Sibbald’s free-kick at the back post but could only send the ball over the crossbar.
With that, Falkirk’s chance of an equaliser evaporated into the cold night air as Hearts extended their lead at the top of the league.
Falkirk (4-2-3-1): MacDonald; Shaughnessy, McCracken, P Grant, Leahy; Vaulks, Taiwo; Smith, Alston, Sibbald; Loy.
49: Cooper for Smith
49: P Grant for Biabi
84: Shepherd for Taiwo
Unused subs: Duffie, Bowman, T Grant, Maybury, Shepherd.
Hearts (4-2-3-1): Alexander; McGhee, Ozturk, McKay, McHattie; Pallardo, Gomis; King, Buaben, Walker; El Hassnaoui.
68: Keatings for Buaben
75: Holt for El Hassnaoui
Unused subs: Hamilton, Robinson, Nicholson, Buchanan, McKirdy.
Referee: Calum Murray.
Scorers: Falkirk - Biabi (70). Hearts - McHattie (27), El Hassnaoui (37).