Little more than a week ago, two SPL head-to-heads appeared destined to go to the wire in the final three months of the season: Celtic v Rangers for the league title, and Motherwell v Hearts (and possibly St Johnstone) to contest third place.
Events of the last seven days have drastically altered the complexion of the top tier, with Celtic now almost dead-certs for the championship and Hearts cut adrift as their third-place challenge fades.
On the evidence of Saturday’s SPL action, there is perhaps more chance of Motherwell beating Rangers to second place than surrendering their “best of the rest” tag to Hearts or St Johnstone.
The race for third place has certainly not been won yet, but the Jambos, who arrived at Fir Park hoping to halve the points deficit with hosts Motherwell to three, suffered a 3-0 defeat that extended that gap to nine.
The sight of fans in amber and claret celebrating the crucial third strike, which came even though Motherwell had been reduced to ten men, was reminiscent of an end-of-season celebration of European qualification due to the crucial nature of the result. While the fortunes of Rangers, who were docked ten points last week after entering administration, only worsened with a 1-0 home defeat to Kilmarnock, a vibrant Motherwell, who recently announced annual profits of more than £500,000, stung Hearts twice within five first-half minutes to confirm their superiority over rivals that had seen them run clear in third in the first place.
“It’s an important gap,” mused Hearts boss Paulo Sergio after the match.
“Yes, we can catch them; in football, it’s not impossible. But, I want to remind you – and I’d appreciate that you don’t forget it – that I can’t accept that people are putting any expectation on this team to finish in third or fourth place.
“You shouldn’t forget that three of our important players left in January [Eggert Jonsson, Ryan Stevenson, and John Sutton]. Don’t forget what is behind us, because what we’re doing is affected by what has happened in the past. I think we should support and appreciate the efforts that all the players are making instead of trying to forget that and saying: ‘This [situation] is negative.’”
Hearts captain Marius Zaliukas may have been joking when he claimed not to have heard of Henrik Ojamaa before this game, but he will have departed Fir Park with the name of his nemesis ringing in his ears.
Motherwell’s Estonian striker was inspirational, toying with the Hearts defence, rarely losing the ball, and creating countless opportunities for himself and strike partner Michael Higdon. After a typical twist and turn on the left flank in the last few minutes, Ojamaa spoon-fed Higdon a glorious chance to hit a crushing fourth goal past Jamie MacDonald, but the Englishman allowed the ball to roll under his swinging right leg and out for a goal kick from his position two yards in front of an empty Hearts goal.
“I’m disappointed with the result and the performance, too,” said Sergio. “I think Motherwell started the game very well and caused us problems. They were passing and moving well in the first ten minutes, but we were defending properly. After that, we found a solution and put them in trouble, too. We had five or six counter-attacks where we should profit better by making better decisions.”
Hearts keeper Macdonald spilled a Jamie Murphy cross from the right three minutes in, and subsequently blocked from Ojamaa and Steve Jennings in quick succession.
David Templeton’s strike on 31 minutes came closest of any first-half effort to troubling Darren Randolph in the Motherwell goal. Stephen Elliott expertly controlled a long ball forward and the nearby Templeton was on hand to hit a speculative shot from the edge of the ‘D’ that rose a couple of feet above the crossbar.
Ryan McGowan stole in via the right flank five minutes later, seizing a forward pass by beating Well left-back Stephen Hammell, but his effort thundered across the face of the goal and wide of the left-hand post.
When the clock struck 37 minutes, Hearts were to embark on a nightmare five-minute period in which Templeton’s enforced exclusion was sandwiched by two Motherwell goals. Macdonald punched a corner clear then stopped Murphy’s follow-up strike with an impressive dive to his left, but Keith Lasley picked up the loose ball on the right-hand side of the penalty area and cannoned a shot off Andy Webster to send the ball into the net.
Rudi Skacel then replaced Templeton, whose continued participation in the game had looked doubtful since he appeared to suffer a groin strain when striking a long range effort – blocked by Hammell – within the opening ten minutes. Moments later, Lasley then flung a cross into the middle of the penalty area where Murphy rose to head the ball high past Macdonald and into the net via the underside of the crossbar.
Soon after the change of ends, a long ball forward deep into the Hearts penalty area by Motherwell goalie Randolph evaded all the home side’s attacking players, but Andy Webster’s lacklustre attempted back-pass to Macdonald fell short, forcing the goalkeeper to race towards the ball and smother at the feet of Ojamaa. The ball ricocheted back to Hammell, who skied the rebound from ten yards out.
Already under pressure to claw back a two-goal deficit, Hearts were tied to a weight of further expectancy when Motherwell midfielder Lasley’s red card meant they would contest the remaining 40 minutes of the match against ten men.
“In the second half, we played a long time against ten men, but ten men doing their job very well, closing the space. They didn’t allow us to find space. I believe we paid in the second half for this month-and-a-half playing a game every three days. We are feeling it because we don’t have the squad to do that, and I believe in the second half we had a lack of explosion of speed and aggression in the last 30 metres.”
A buoyant Motherwell, backed by all but a thousand among a boisterous crowd of 5489, ran rampant with a man fewer than their opponents.
Murphy made a fool of Zaliukas by simply knocking the ball past his static opponent on the right flank. Macdonald raced from his goal to halt the flying Well winger, but, although the Hearts goalkeeper reached the ball first, his clearance fell to Nicky Law, whose attempted lob over the backtracking Hearts defence narrowly failed to dip under the crossbar.
Law drew nearer to sealing a home victory on 55 minutes, when his rising 20-yard strike had Macdonald beaten, but crashed back off the right-hand post.
The on-song midfielder was luckier with his third effort at goal of the second half, sending three sides of Fir Park into a frenzy. The players Hearts, having noted the influence of Ojamaa, swarmed the Estonian trickster in the build-up to the goal, but not even three markers could prevent the striker cutting infield from the left flank.
Ojamaa rolled the ball across the face of the penalty area to Murphy, who stroked it further across into the path of the incoming Law on the right-hand side of the penalty area, and he slotted the ball past Macdonald via the near post.
The effectiveness of the Higdon- Ojamaa attacking axis may have been of particular interest to Hearts boss Paulo Sergio, who perseveres with only Stephen Elliott in the Hearts forward line. The Irish striker, in line with many recent performances, huffed and puffed and did not lack application or industry, but his success in and around the opposition penalty area is being suffocated by a lack of support. When he is left alone – or slightly in front of the largely ineffectual David Obua – to feed off the supply provided by Hearts’ midfielders and wingers, he is all too often crowded out by two, three or four defenders.
Sergio feels that better times are ahead for Elliott and Co., who endured a frustrating afternoon against a Motherwell side who appear deserving favourites for third place – or higher. The Jambos manager, although on the losing side, is merely glad to see the end of an intensive run of games and says his players will take a rare opportunity to regroup ahead of this weekend’s visit of Dundee United.
“I’m happy, finally, to reach a point where we have a game seven days after this one,” said the Portuguese.
“We really need that. I was saying that two to three weeks ago. There are some guys whose speed and decision-making is not the same as two months ago, so we need this week to put the heads and the bodies in place again to attack what is left in the league.”