Spurned chances leave Tynecastle deflated and see Motherwell take step closer to Europe
THE question for Hearts following this defeat must be when is Craig Beattie fit? As Michael Higdon struck his 16th goal of the season to push Motherwell to the cusp of the Champions League qualifiers, the Tynecastle side blatantly lacked that kind of attacking presence. Beattie’s hamstring injury leaves Hearts looking a completely different proposition approaching the end of the campaign.
Motherwell exploited that last night to record a crucial victory, Higdon scoring on 29 minutes after Jamie MacDonald parried Jamie Murphy’s shot. Everything the Englishman showed throughout the evening was everything Hearts were missing up front. Beattie, who sustained his injury at Tannadice last weekend, is sorely missed, which is no slight on the industrious Stephen Elliott. Beattie’s return is eagerly awaited with Hearts yet to win a post-split SPL fixture and with the Scottish Cup final against Hibs looming.
Motherwell, it must be said, make you marvel at their efficiency. Higdon’s goal accorded them a deserved interval lead and it was then vigorously defended throughout a second-half dominated by Hearts. The visitors broke intelligently and defended resolutely to see out the game and leave their hosts huffing and puffing and cursing referee Brian Winter.
This was his last SPL game and his decisions frequently irked those in maroon, with many hefty challenges going unpunished.
But that was no excuse. Paulo Sergio, the Hearts manager, criticised his team’s finishing and bemoaned the fact they controlled the second-half without forcing at least an equaliser. “We didn’t have efficiency in front of goal,” he admitted. “Sometimes football is not about justice or injustice, simply taking chances. Motherwell had one and they scored, we had lots and we didn’t score. We didn’t have efficiency in our play.
“The only ball that went towards our goal, Jamie made a save and they scored from the second ball.
“We defended poorly at that moment. Murphy shouldn’t be shown inside but we made that mistake and they got a second ball to score and get three points. We had two or three chances in the first-half and four in the second-half. At the start of the game we passed the ball and found spaces and pressed well. After we lost the goal, I didn’t like it because we had a lack of desire. We spoke at half-time and we changed things. We were different in the second-half. Motherwell defended well but we had clear chances to score.”
Sergio refused to complain about being denied Beattie’s services. Hearts need points to reach next season’s Europa League qualifying rounds and the Scotland internationalist struck three goals in seven appearances before injury struck on Tayside. “I never complain about players I don’t have. I prefer to speak with the ones who went on the pitch and I want them to do better than they did last night. I trust the players and I want them to give 100 per cent every day. When we do that as a unit, normally we get a result. We lost two points on Saturday and three last night which we didn’t deserve.” Motherwell will secure their place in the Champions League qualifying rounds tonight if Dundee United fail to beat Rangers. They arrived at Tynecastle with a gameplan to stifle Hearts and plunder a goal at some stage, which worked perfectly.
MacDonald held shots from Murphy and Higdon inside the opening ten minutes and Darren Barr’s attempt from distance rose steadily into the Roseburn Stand. The Hearts goalkeeper was rounded by Murphy on 16 minutes but the shot which followed from an acute angle was tame and Ian Black cleared.
Those were the highlights from a very open start to the game from both teams, although there was no denying Motherwell possessed more guile despite the very attack-minded Hearts line-up.
That craft largely belonged to Murphy and it was he who fashioned the opening goal. After cutting inside Ryan McGowan, he dispatched a powerful shot which MacDonald could only push out towards the penalty spot. Lurking with intent was Higdon, who returned an excellent first-time finish with his left foot low into the corner of the net.
Hearts introduced Rudi Skacel for the ineffective Mehdi Taouil at half-time and tried to assert themselves better after the restart. David Templeton, starting his first match since February, exchanged passes with Black and scampered into the Motherwell penalty area before being expertly tackled in the act of shooting by Shaun Hutchinson. Just after the hour mark, Barr headed Danny Grainger’s curling free-kick just wide. By now, the hosts were enjoying concerted pressure.
A break from defence saw Motherwell spring an attack which ended when Keith Lasley’s drive from 20 yards deflected off Marius Zaliukas for a corner. Play quickly returned to the opposite end, where Suso cracked a quite stunning volley past goalkeeper Darren Randolph but was flagged offside from Templeton’s pass. Andy Driver and Gary Glen were introduced in a double substitution to keep the pressure on, but Motherwell’s resistance wasn’t to be broken.
They ended the evening celebrating in front of a joyous – and, in many cases, shirtless – band of travelling fans. They can now sense Champions League qualification for the first time in their club’s history. “It would be by default, there’s no doubt about that,” admitted manager Stuart McCall. “It’s because of the Rangers situation. To finish third would be an outstanding achievement. The Champions League would be beyond our wildest dreams. The nightmare at Ibrox gives someone a chance to get in there. If it’s us, it’s a great achievement.
“We talked about coming to Tynecastle on Christmas Eve when we had a big support and didn’t turn up. We played 4-5-1 and gave Hearts too much respect. This time we went 4-4-2 and had a go, playing Murphy up with Higdon. Everyone put a shift in and that’s what was needed because Hearts have individuals like Taouil, Skacel and Templeton who can hurt you.
“I actually can’t remember big Darren having much to do, it was only Barr’s header. We weren’t great in the second-half but you don’t need to be if you can get a goal and defend. Hearts were excellent against Dundee United but we limited them on their own pitch.”
McCall reserved special praise for Higdon. “He had criticism earlier in the season but a lot of teams in the SPL would like a player like him. He has a work ethic, he holds up play, he’s back defending and he gets goals. But most of our players have been excellent this season and I would struggle to pick a player of the year, to be honest.”