EUROPEAN football is guaranteed at Tynecastle next season thanks to Hearts’ draw in Inverness.
For the first time since 2012, the Edinburgh club will play in the Europa League qualifying rounds and will finish at least third in their first season back in the Ladbrokes Premiership.
Despite the rather turgid nature of their 0-0 draw in the Highlands, it was a significant result in what has been an exceptional season overall. Hearts are now 16 points ahead of fourth-placed Motherwell with just five games remaining. Their target is still to catch Aberdeen, who remain eight points better off in second place, but third is already secured.
Robbie Neilson and his players can now look forward to Europa League qualifying matches starting at the end of June. Their progress has continued at rapid pace since winning last year’s Championship title at a canter, although further improvement will be required to hold their own on the continent.
The trip to Inverness followed an inspired home display on Friday night, when Hearts overhauled a 1-0 deficit to beat Aberdeen 2-1. That maintained hope of usurping the Pittodrie club and finishing second, although last night’s draw didn’t help such a quest.
Although the Caledonian Stadium was bathed in sunshine before kick-off, there was no mistaking the stiff breeze circling the ground from the nearby Moray Firth. Drizzly rain was also in the air which, given the pitch was heavily watered, made for a slippy surface at the start.
Hearts arrived encouraged by being able to name Callum Paterson amongst their substitutes after his recovery from a shoulder injury. The Edinburgh club faced a confident Inverness side after their 2-0 win over Dundee United at Tannadice on Saturday.
If any evidence of the hosts’ intent was needed, it came after just seven minutes when Ross Draper slid into a crunching tackle on Miguel Pallardo. Draper won the ball but left Pallardo writhing on the ground holding the area around his knee. The Spaniard momentarily left the field to recover.
Both teams were trying to move the ball around and play a passing style, although the tempo left much to be desired. Inverness striker Miles Storey set off for a run at the visiting defence on 17 minutes and it took a well-timed tackle by Blazej Augustyn to stop him on the edge of the penalty area.
After a similar driving run at the opposite end of the field, Jamie Walker found himself cautioned for simulation. The Hearts winger had gone past two opponents but the third, Carl Tremarco, appeared to make some contact in a challenge inside the penalty box. Referee Don Robertson swiftly produced a yellow card, however.
Seconds later, another potential flashpoint arrived when Iain Vigurs fouled Arnaud Djoum and proceeded to kick the ball into the grounded Cameroonian. Djoum reacted angrily and both players received yellow cards. The subsequent free-kick brought the first attempt on goal, but Alim Ozturk’s dipping effort from 30 yards cleared the crossbar.
Walker’s 34th-minute shot flew wide before Pallardo eventually succumbed to his injury. He limped off to be replaced by Paterson, who made his comeback after a six-week absence with a torn shoulder ligament. The adjustment saw Paterson assume his favoured right-back role, with John Souttar shunted into Pallardo’s defensive midfield berth.
The latter stages of the first half were peppered with yelling and shrieking from John Hughes in the home technical area. The manager was clearly unimpressed with his team’s work and his anger would have multiplied on 44 minutes.
One of Paterson’s trademark rampaging forward runs led him to within shooting range. He exchanged passes with 18-year-old Dario Zanatta – making only his second start for Hearts – and dispatched a powerful 20-yard shot which the Inverness goalkeeper Owain Fon Williams could only beat away.
Hearts emerged for the second half with a changed formation and a bit more intent. A three-man defence of Ozturk, Augustyn and Souttar allowed full-backs Paterson and Juwon Oshaniwa to push forward. Oshaniwa delivered a cross to Zanatta shortly after the restart but, at the near post, the young Canadian was tightly marked and couldn’t divert the ball goalwards.
Inverness defender Tremarco volleyed wastefully over Neil Alexander’s goal frame when a cross ball landed with him at the back post in the 63rd minute. That apart, it was mostly Hearts pressing. Substitute Abiola Dauda sent a shot into the stand after replacing Zanatta, and he might have scored five minutes later. Djoum’s incisive dribbling run from inside his own half ended with an intelligent through ball to the Nigerian. He tried to prod a finish into the net but Fon Williams emerged quickly to block.
As time wore on, it became more obvious that neither side possessed the required guile to break the deadlock. Inverness tried to force a late winner but Tremarco’s left-footed shot from 14 yards arced wide of Alexander’s right post before Vigurs’ cross ball was stopped by the diving Alexander at the near post.
Hearts looked tired as the 90th minute and then injury-time arrived. Alexander was called into action to hold substitute Danny Williams’ shot on the turn. Nonetheless, the visitors left the Highlands in fine fettle and with a spring in their step, knowing a place in Europe is now indisputably theirs.
Inverness (4-3-3): Fon Williams; Meekings, Warren, Devine, Tremarco; Tansey, Draper, Vigurs; Polworth, Storey (Williams 76), Mutombo (Vincent 46).
Hearts (4-2-3-1): Alexander; Souttar, Ozturk, Augustyn, Oshaniwa (Nicholson 82); Kitchen, Pallardo (Paterson 38); Zanatta (Dauda 64), Djoum, Walker; Juanma.
Referee: D Robertson