Step two of three is complete for Hearts after they defeated Inverness Caledonian Thistle.
The Edinburgh club entered into three home games in a week on Saturday and have now won the first two, with Partick Thistle to come this weekend. Six points have been garnered from Kilmarnock and Inverness without conceding a goal, leaving those at Tynecastle satisfied with their endeavours so far.
Jamie Walker’s third goal in three games secured a vital advantage for Hearts ten minutes from the interval. He had missed much of the winter due to a knee injury which required surgery at Christmas. His return brings a useful injection as the critical spring period approaches.
Abiola Dauda’s first goal at Tynecastle early in the second half put the game beyond Inverness, who created little throughout the 90 minutes. Hearts didn’t exactly run over the top of their guests but they never looked in any danger of losing this game. Victory takes them to within six points of second-placed Aberdeen in the Ladbrokes Premiership table. The Pittodrie club face Dundee United at Tannadice this evening but are being hunted by challengers from the Capital.
Inverness hadn’t lost any of their previous ten meetings with Hearts, dating back to November 2011 when Rudi Skacel and Eggert Jonsson goals consigned them to a 2-1 defeat at Tynecastle. They were looking to continue that impressive sequence but were perhaps mindful that they must defend their Scottish Cup in their next fixture – the quarter-final against Hibs on Sunday.
Hearts named the same team which defeated Kilmarnock at the weekend, save for one enforced change. Callum Paterson’s shoulder injury leaves him sidelined for a few weeks and 19-year-old Liam Smith was handed his right-back spot for his first league start. He was to enjoy a faultless evening during which he displayed both defensive composure and attacking intent.
The opening period of the game lacked a spark on a chilly evening in Gorgie. Hearts probed at their northern opponents without managing to break through. They might have gone close on 13 minutes when Dauda blasted a shot goalwards from 16 yards. He was denied by a timely block tackle from the Inverness centre-back Danny Devine. Moments later, Devine cut out Gavin Reilly’s low cross from the left with Arnaud Djoum ready to pounce.
The ball was being well retained by the patient home side despite the wait for an opening. The Inverness manager John Hughes had deployed his players in a flexible 4-3-3/4-5-1 formation and they were typically well organised across defence and in midfield. That made Hearts’ task of trying to meander their way through towards goal all the more difficult.
Smith galloped forward down the right flank on the half-hour mark and came tantalisingly close to scoring. With an excellent first touch, he controlled Igor Rossi’s cross-field pass and darted inside away from Carl Tremarco. After exchanging passes with Gavin Reilly on the edge of the penalty area, the teenager tried a left-footed effort which sailed narrowly over Owain Fon-Williams’ crossbar.
Ten minutes from the interval, the Highlanders’ resistance was broken by Walker. Djoum’s raking diagonal pass found the winger cutting in from the left flank. He controlled the ball on his chest and, although under pressure from two defenders, managed to slot it past Fon-Williams and low into the net.
Taking the lead allowed Hearts’ confidence to grow quickly and they had two further efforts at goal before the half-time whistle. Rossi’s attempt went wide, while Walker tried for a second but found Tremarco in the way of his 22-yard shot. Inverness’ only attempt of note on goal throughout the first half was a rather tame header by Jordan Roberts which Neil Alexander collected comfortably.
Hearts strove to kill the game off as soon as play restarted. Dauda skipped clear of Devine and shot at Fon-Williams’ legs, although the Nigerian didn’t have long to wait until he could etch his name on the scoresheet.
Rossi’s hurried clearance landed with Greg Tansey but the midfielder was woefully short with a backpass to his goalkeeper from around 40 yards out on the left. Dauda was alert enough to gamble on the ball not reaching its destination and found himself one-on-one with Fon-Williams. He showed good composure to run round the Welshman and stroke the ball into an empty net.
Dauda should have scored again on 70 minutes. Teed up by Sam Nicholson, he decided to shoot first time when unmarked inside the visitors’ penalty area and Fon-Williams made a comfortable save low to his right. Inverness then forced their way forward and, from Liam Polworth’s tackle in midfield, Tansey found himself with a sight of goal just outside the hosts’ penalty box. He rather screwed his shot, though, and the ball flew off target.
The closest Caley Thistle came was with ten minutes left. Miles Storey – largely starved of service for much of the night – cut inside from the left and unleashed a powerful shot at Alexander. The goalkeeper was down quickly to his left to parry the ball, which was then cleared from the danger zone.
Inverness’ hopes petered out after that and Hearts completed a rewarding few days with another three points.
Hearts: Alexander; L Smith, Ozturk, Souttar, Rossi (McGhee 80); Nicholson, Buaben, Djoum, Walker (Zanatta 66); Reilly, Dauda (Cowie 79). Unused subs: Hamilton, Augustyn, Pallardo, Juanma.
Inverness CT: Fon-Williams; Horner (Hughes 82), Warren, Devine, Tremarco; Polworth, Tansey, Vigurs; D Williams, Storey, Roberts (R Williams 70). Unused subs: Esson, Brown, MacLennan.
Referee: Alan Muir