A plethora of wasted chances grated on the nerves of Hearts players, supporters and coaches on Saturday. The audible frustration around Tynecastle made it easy to overlook an improved home performance, albeit a 2-2 draw at home to ten-man Partick Thistle wasn’t the desired outcome.
European qualification hopes are dwindling for Ian Cathro and his squad. St Johnstone’s win at Aberdeen put them six points ahead of Hearts in fourth place – the Ladbrokes Premiership’s last remaining Europa League spot. Drawing home matches doesn’t help but Cathro rightly stated his side had enough chances to beat Thistle.
Chief protagonist when it came to missing them was Portuguese striker Esmael Goncalves. The visitors were reduced to ten men with more than 20 minutes remaining after Danny Devine was ajudged to have handled Don Cowie’s shot. Goncalves confidently dispatched the resultant penalty beyond the Partick goalkeeper Tomas Cerny to level the score at 1-1 following Kris Doolan’s headed opener.
However, the Hearts forward should have scored another two – or possibly three. He had already sent a header wide before scoring the penalty and it must be said Cerny’s outstanding goalkeeping denied several others in maroon to keep Thistle in the game. Steven Lawless put them back in front and it required an Andraz Struna strike on 87 minutes to salvage a point for the hosts.
Goncalves then passed up a glorious match-winning chance. In stoppage-time, he galloped in behind the Partick defence to fasten on to substitute Bjorn Johnsen’s prodded through ball. Curiously, he opted to shoot from more than 20 yards out rather as Cerny emerged to confront him one on one. The effort was tame and the Czech held it low to his left.
“I know I missed some chances, I’m really disappointed,” said the 25-year-old. “When you’re a striker you have days like this so I must live with that. The goalkeeper played well. I have to show in the next few games that I’m strong mentally. I was looking to score another goal and give us a win. I didn’t give up. I kept working to look for another chance.
“I have played [the last chance] over and over in my mind but I must move on. If I keep thinking about that chance, it will be bad for me. It’s done, it’s finished, I didn’t score so I move on. We created a lot of chances and it’s good for strikers. Now I must work to finish them. We scored twice but in other games we have scored four. It was the best game for creating chances.”
Goncalves agreed that Hearts’ play was much improved after a 0-0 draw at Kilmarnock and 1-0 win over Dundee in their last two outings. The first half of Saturday’s encounter was dull and it was no surprise to see a blank scoreline at the interval. That gave way to a breatktaking second 45 minutes.
“If you watch this game and compare it to the other games we played at home, I think we are much better. We are reaching a point that the coach wants. You always expect to win games but in football you never know what’s going to happen. That’s why it’s beautiful.”
He stressed he is eager to keep playing and won’t give up on Europe just yet. “Of course not. I’m enjoying this and I want to play until the season is finished. We want the Europa League, we don’t want it to finish like this. We will keep working,” he said.
“Of course it’s getting difficult and it’s disappointing for our team. I think, with the spirit and the way we played, we can be a little bit happy. It was a good effort from our team but it’s still disappointing because St Johnstone won. It’s getting difficult but it’s not impossible. Until it’s impossible, we will keep working.”
Defensive uncertainty was what ultimately cost the Edinburgh club. Doolan was unmarked heading the opener and Lawless’ run in behind wasn’t tracked at all for Thistle’s second goal. Cathro deployed Liam Smith, Prince Buaben and Krystian Nowak in a three-man defence, which will clearly need drilled at training if it is to continue.
“We feel disappointment, frustration, maybe a tiny bit of shock at not winning that match,” said Cathro. “We feel we did more than enough to win the match, with the chances created, but we make it difficult for ourselves. We shouldn’t need to score three goals to win a match here.
“We found ourselves in a position where we had to because of defensive errors, but that’s a game where we win more often than not. Our attacking was much better but we were missing more goals. Isma would get a hat-trick nine times out of ten in a game like this, and he knows that. This is a game we should have won and, as the main striker, he obviously feels it more than any of us.”
“You’ve got to reflect on both [penalty] boxes. Two goals should be enough to win the game, so we need to look at the defensive side. There’s no question we’re always going to make chances but we’ve got to learn to make our lives a bit easier.”
Thistle left Gorgie harbouring a fair amount of frustration of their own. Manager Alan Archibald was unhappy with referee Andrew Dallas for dismissing Devine via a second yellow card, although encouraged by his players’ character. Partick’s presence in the top six represents their best finish to a season since 1981 and they believe they can finish above Hearts in fifth place.
“It’s always hard with ten men but we’ll take the point,” said Archibald. “I wasn’t surprised [by the red card] given some of the decisions he gave before that. You’ll see another ten of those incidents and they could all be called differently. If it hits his hand, you’ll see it in a couple of weeks’ time and it might not be a red card.
“Danny goes to block the shot and his arm comes across his body and the ball hits him. I’m not sure what he’s supposed to do. We were under a lot of pressure in the second half but I thought we had the clearer chances. We had six injuries so the boys showed great character.”