On a frenzied Friday night under the Tynecastle floodlights, spirited Hearts sent out an emphatic signal of intent.
Floored by a virus at the start of the week and in danger of being blown away by an Aberdonian storm at the start of this match, Robbie Neilson’s team somehow rediscovered their poise and, most importantly, their energy levels, to produce one of their biggest results of the season.
Juanma was the hero with two goals as Hearts came from behind to surely kill off the Dons’ lingering title dream and breathe new life into their own hopes of catching Derek McInnes’ side. This result – fully merited in the end – left the Jambos nine points behind their visitors with a game in hand and another game against the men from the Granite City to come after the split.
“Aberdeen, we’re coming for you,” was the chant from a delirious home support as they saw out victory in relatively comfortable fashion.
A return to Europe beckons for the Gorgie boys, but even if, as likely, the nine-point gap to second place proves a bridge too far with just six games left to play, this victory – Hearts’ second in succession over Aberdeen – could at least be bracketed in the “laying down a marker for next season” category. All the more so in light of a highly impressive display against champions-elect Celtic last weekend.
The effects of the virus that led to Tuesday’s match at Inverness being postponed had subsided enough to allow Hearts to field almost the same side that started against Celtic. The only change was enforced by suspension as Juwon Oshaniwa dropped out to be replaced by Blazej Augustyn. The Pole took up a centre-back berth alongside captain Alim Ozturk as John Souttar, who had played right of a three-man defence at Parkhead, moved out to right-back in a more familiar 4-4-2 formation.
Hearts started in a reasonably promising manner as Sam Nicholson drilled a low left-footed shot agonisingly wide from the edge of the box. However, the hosts soon found themselves caught in trouble as the visitors seized command of proceedings and threatened to run riot.
With just three minutes gone, the Dons, who had the chance to close within two points of top spot, had their 1400 supporters in raptures when Simon Church nipped in at the near post to flick a Graeme Shinnie cross beyond Neil Alexander after the left-back had played a quick one-two with Jonny Hayes to create space for himself. “Glasgow Celtic, we’re coming for you,” chanted the Aberdeen fans.
Hearts were rattled and found themselves in a temporary state of disarray. Niall McGinn should have doubled the visitors’ lead when he made a Kenny McLean cross inside the six-yard box but lashed his first-time shot the wrong side of Alexander’s left-hand post.
Shay Logan then slipped McGinn in behind the Hearts defence, but Alexander made a vital stop. The veteran goalkeeper, one of those afflicted by the virus, found himself involved far more than he would have envisaged in the early stages and he had to act smartly to stop Igor Rossi slicing a Hayes corner into his own net.
Logan then met a McLean cross at the back post but headed straight into the arms of Alexander. Remarkably, all of this occurred inside the opening ten minutes.
Hearts fans were growing seriously agitated at what they were witnessing, but their embattled team finally got some respite in the 11th minute when Juanma won a free-kick after being fouled by Shinnie wide on the right as he tried to burst into the box.
From the resulting free-kick, taken by Nicholson, Augustyn saw a goalbound header superbly clawed out by Brown.
Hearts had at least stemmed the relentless early flow of Aberdeen attacks, but the Dons remained a danger and Craig Storie rasped inches past in the 15th minute after McGinn’s free kick from the left had been cleared into his path on the edge of the box.
Hearts were gradually feeling their way back into the game after their chastening start and they almost equalised in the 28th minute when Ozturk’s curling free kick was tipped over Brown.
It was another long-range strike from the captain which helped bring the hosts level five minutes later. Ozturk picked up possession near the half-way line, surged forward, and, encouraged by shouts from the crowd to shoot, unleashed a strike from 25 yards out which was palmed out by Brown. Juanma gleefully followed up to force home his first goal in three months.
The Spaniard almost doubled his tally two minutes later when he shot over at the near post after taking a Nicholson cross with his back to goal six yards out. Prince Buaben then thumped a shot just past the post as Hearts finished the first half in far stronger fashion than they had started it.
Just before the break, Aberdeen suffered a blow when their captain, Ryan Jack, was stretchered off and replaced by Flood.
After a relatively uneventful start to the second half – in comparison to the first half, at least – Hearts felt they should have had a penalty in the 53rd minute when Logan appeared to handle the ball as Buaben tried to convert a Juanma cross. From the resulting corner, the hosts went desperately close as Rossi, having taken a pass from Ozturk 25 yards out, pirouetted beautifully away from his man before smacking a sensational strike off the crossbar.
From fearing the worst in the opening ten minutes, the home support were now well and truly roused.
Their optimism was justified in the 61st minute when Hearts edged themselves ahead. Walker was the provider as he sent over an inviting cross from the left and Juanma, with his dander up, beat Brown to it and nodded into the net from close range.
Hearts should have gone further ahead in the 65th minute when Juanma rolled in Walker, but his low drilled shot from inside the box ran agonisingly wide of the far post. Aberdeen almost equalised five minutes later but McGinn sent a Flood cross wide from six yards out.
Aside from this scare, Hearts saw out the game in relatively comfortable fashion, much to the delight of a giddy home support. The sense that Hearts are a team on a mission under Craig Levein and Neilson refuses to subside.
Hearts: Alexander; Souttar, Augustyn, Ozturk, Rossi; Buaben (Pallardo 80), Kitchen, Djoum, Nicholson; Walker (McGhee 84), Juanma (Zanatta 90). Subs not used: Hamilton, L Smith, Reilly, Dauda.
Aberdeen: Brown; Logan, Taylor (Considine 81), Reynolds, Shinnie; Jack (Flood 44), Storie (Smith 76); Hayes, McLean, McGinn; Church: Subs not used: Collin, McKenna, McLennan, Ross.
Referee: S McLean