Two months ago to the day, Hearts beat Rangers to move into second place in the Premiership. In the intervening period, they have won only one out of five league matches and slipped 11 points behind the Ibrox side, who return to Tynecastle this Wednesday evening in more robust shape.
Yesterday’s 4-0 defeat away to Celtic can be classed as merely another disappointing result of a grim winter for Hearts, whose hopes of back-to-back top-three finishes in the top flight have faded fast. Their battle now looks to be with fifth-place St Johnstone, who, having been seven points below them two months ago, are now only inferior on goal difference. Fourth-place Hearts are currently closer to eighth-place Kilmarnock than they are to third-place Aberdeen.
Midfielder Don Cowie admits the sense of transition at Tynecastle, where there has been a significant turnover of players since Ian Cathro replaced Robbie Neilson, has taken a toll on their campaign. “That’s what happens when managers change,” said the 33-year-old. “They want their own players and to play a different style. As a current player, you’ve just got to go along with it and hope that we can turn it around and gel as quickly as possible. That can only happen by working on the training pitch and getting to know everyone. As of now, we’ve really got to step up and start getting results.
“With the amount of new players, it’s going to take time. But there have been spells in games we’ve shown we have good quality and can be a good team but you’ve got to do that for 90 minutes and that’s what we’re striving for right now.”
In the circumstances, a heavy Hearts defeat didn’t come as a great surprise to many of their supporters. Having failed to win at Parkhead since 2009, Hearts – badly out of form, in a state of transition and without key men like Callum Paterson and Arnaud Djoum, among others – always looked vulnerable against a Celtic side who were chasing a club record 27th domestic game unbeaten since the start of the season.
Bearing in mind that both Rangers and Aberdeen have suffered heavy defeats at Parkhead this season, perhaps of more concern to Hearts than the scoreline yesterday was the injury suffered by John Souttar. The centre-back crumpled in a heap after landing awkwardly with three minutes left. Following several minutes of attention from medics, he was carried off in clear distress. A lengthy lay-off with a torn Achilles looks likely.
“He’s upset and feels like he’s got a bad injury but until the experts confirm anything it’s only speculation,” said Cowie. “Hopefully it’s nothing too major because he’s a quality young player who we need playing for us. He’s an exceptional talent, not only for Hearts but for Scotland – I really believe he’s got a massive future in the game. Let’s hope it’s not too major and we can get him back as soon as possible.”
Cathro made three changes to the side that edged out Raith Rovers in Wednesday’s Scottish Cup replay as Andraz Struna, Prince Buaben and Rory Currie dropped out through a combination of injury and illness to be replaced by Liam Smith, Cowie and Sam Nicholson, who was given his first start in four months following injury. Krystian Nowak remained on the sidelines. New recruits Dylan Bikey and Mohammed El Ouriachi Choulay, the winger who signed on loan from Stoke City on Saturday, were listed among the substitutes.
The Tynecastle side, who hadn’t won in their previous 11 visits to Parkhead, could take some solace from the fact their hosts were without their two main strikers, Moussa Dembele and Leigh Griffiths, while the influential Stuart Armstrong pulled out through injury just before kick-off.
After a low-key start in which Hearts looked fairly comfortable, the hosts made the breakthrough on the half hour when Scott Sinclair received a pass from Scott Brown wide on the left, then slipped the ball inside for Callum McGregor, who took a touch before steering a left-footed shot in off Jack Hamilton’s left-hand post from 15 yards out.
In a game which, for the most part, produced few clear openings at either end, Hearts’ best chance of an equaliser came in the 72nd minute when Malaury Martin latched on to a through pass from Choulay, who had replaced Nicholson for the last 32 minutes, but the French midfielder was crowded out by Celtic players and eventually saw his shot from just inside the box blocked by ex-Tynecastle goalkeeper Craig Gordon.
With the game, in terms of the scoreline at least, still in the balance, Celtic duly upped the ante and added some gloss to the scoreline in the closing 13 minutes. Sinclair forced the ball over the line from a yard out for the hosts’ second in the 77th minute after Hamilton had stopped Aaron Hughes knocking a Kieran Tierney cross into this own net. The excellent Tierney was the provider again two minutes later as he cut the ball back for Patrick Roberts to fire high past Hamilton from seven yards out. With Hearts reduced to ten men when Souttar was forced off following the use of all of their substitutes, Sinclair completed a comfortable home victory with a stoppage-time penalty after Lennard Sowah, one of the few bright sparks in an uninspiring Hearts performance, tripped substitute Jack Aitchison.
Cathro took some heart from the early part of the second half, when his side threatened to haul themselves level. “For me, that was probably the defining part of the game,” he said. “In those situations, when we had the game in our hands, we had to make sure that we hurt them and that the game went to 1-1. Martin had a chance and we felt that we were starting to be able to force them to make some mistakes – we pressed well but Celtic withstood it very well. Then we pushed a little harder and that was when we lost the second goal and the game started to change a little bit.”
While little was expected of Hearts yesterday, the same can’t be said of Wednesday’s home match with Rangers. Regardless of recent form, the Tynecastle support will demand a performance as intense as the one that put Mark Warburton’s side to the sword on the last day of November.
“We need to start picking up points and putting a marker down in the league and get back to where we were, competing at the top end of the table,” said Cowie. “Wednesday’s a great opportunity. It will be a difficult game because Rangers have had a great run in the last few months but we have to look forward to it. We did well against them earlier and hopefully we can take something from that.”