Hearts staged a dramatic late goal flurry to move within three points of their Ayrshire opponents in the race for a UEFA Cup place.
A late red-card for visiting goalkeeper Gordon Marshall, who handled outside his area with 15 minutes remaining when Hearts were just a goal ahead, swung the match in the home side’s favour.
Both sides were keen to bounce back from the disappointment of narrow Scottish Cup quarter-final defeats in this fourth versus fifth midweek clash.
Jambos boss Craig Levein moved Scott Severin forward from a central defensive role to cover the suspended Colin Cameron. The versatile Thomas Flogel was pushed up front alongside Andy Kirk, with Gary McSwegan kept on the bench. Kilmarnock were without Kevin McGowne and Craig Dargo, while Andy McLaren was recalled to the starting line-up, as was Garry Hay.
In the end, Hearts triumphed with ease, and Kilmarnock were fortunate not to be embarrassed by an even more damning score, however the visitors had the better of the opening half.
Only twice was a ball struck in the direction of goal in the first period and both incidents came from Killie, Garry Hay being denied by a block by Steven Pressley and goalkeeper Antti Niemi saving well from Paul Wright.
Levein was forced to alter his selection after only 21 minutes, with midfielder Robert Tomaschek having fallen victim to a hamstring injury and Steven Boyack was introduced.
Hearts’ necessary tactical rearrangements meant Flogel was flung into attack alongside young Northern Irish striker Kirk, and the Austrian’s performance grew in stature throughout the night. His glanced header on the half-time whistle finally caused Marshall to dirty his strip, but it drifted narrowly wide.
Juanjo, who had dribbled as prettily as ever in the first half, followed up with an example of his shooting ability after the break – the home side finally bringing out a save from Marshall.
McSwegan replaced Kirk and his partnership with Flogel was to have an immediate impact. Flogel worked a one-two with McSwegan and, after clever footwork, set his sights from 20 yards and his shot was deflected via an opponent’s leg and beyond the despairing dive of Marshall.
Marshall’s night soon capitulated properly. When McSwegan was put through by an excellent Austin McCann pass, Marshall came to meet him and the striker attempted to poke the ball around his grounded body. The ball seemed to thud into the chest area of the former Celtic keeper, and as he stood up it rolled up and down his back. At some point, though, it must have brushed his arm.
As Tynecastle erupted in fury at the decision of referee George Mitchell to wave play on, the assistant referee was spotted waving his flag, and the outcome of their consultation was predictable. Marshall, an understandably forlorn figure, had to walk.
From the free-kick, Juanjo exquisitely curled an effort past substitute keeper Colin Medlrum and they still had time for another. Severin acrobatically converted Juanjo’s cross with his back to goal a minute from the end.
Hearts: Niemi, Neilson, McCann, Murray, Pressley, Severin, Juanjo, Tomaschek, McAnespie, Flogel, Kirk.