PIVOTAL substitutions are becoming a speciality for Hearts manager Paulo Sergio.
Arvydas Novikovas emerged from the bench at Tannadice to lash a delightful equaliser and secure a point against Dundee United in a game Hearts dominated. Indeed, Sergio argued that his team deserved more than a draw, but he must be satisfied making all these decisive interventions.
Hearts were 2-1 down with ten minutes remaining when he introduced Novikovas for Andy Driver. Despite playing the majority of the second period in United’s half and hitting the crossbar through another sub, David Templeton, the visitors were toiling to score. Novikovas was asked by his manager to inject fresh impetus, and six minutes from the end the winger was cartwheeling and handspringing around the pitch after what he considers “probably my best goal in official game”.
Sergio’s decisions accorded Hearts similar boosts against both halves of the Old Firm recently. He introduced Craig Beattie at Ibrox to devastating effect, and did likewise with the same player at Hampden two weeks back in the Scottish Cup semi-final. On both occasions the change turned the game, and that was again the case in Dundee.
Willo Flood’s sensational opener from 30 yards – a goal which matched the strike from Novikovas for quality – was quickly equalised by Rudi Skacel’s header. Hearts enjoyed almost total control of the second half but conceded a soft second to Gary Mackay-Steven. It was left to the Lithuanian to restore parity, and he did so in some style by thumping the ball into Dusan Pernis’ top right corner from the edge of the penalty box.
A draw keeps Hearts in contention for fourth place as they remain four points behind United. The Tayside club are challenging for a Champions League qualifying place at the end of the season, although that wasn’t always evident during the match. Their guests were by far the more inventive and creative team and spent almost the entire second half on a precession towards the United goal.
Still, Sergio needed to conjure some magic from somewhere to avoid leaving empty-handed. He decided to employ Novikovas. “We took risks just playing with three defenders in the final moments,” he said. “It’s a disappointing result because I think we deserved more. I think we lost two points. But it’s football and I shouldn’t forget we were playing a very good team.
“The first half was tight, there was lots of fight and no space to play. Some players lacked confidence to take risks and pass the ball. We lost a sloppy goal with a header into the centre of the pitch, you should never do that. We created two or three chances and scored one. In the second half it was just Hearts looking to win. We had five or six chances to score. We lost a goal from a corner, I can’t accept a corner travelling all the way along the floor and being scored at back post.”
The first 30 minutes of the game passed largely without incident. Then came a flurry of activity, starting with Craig Beattie’s enforced substitution with a hamstring problem. “Craig felt something in his hamstring so we’ll evaluate it in 24 hours. I don’t want to talk about the cup final, he might miss the next game, maybe. I don’t know the dimension of the pain he is feeling. It is dangerous because I lost an important attacker. I have to wait and see if it is something more and listen to the physio.”
Beattie had barely left the field when United scored. Garry Kenneth’s high ball towards the Hearts penalty area was headed out into a central area by Ryan McGowan. Flood used one touch to control the ball before dispatching an unstoppable 30-yard strike past Jamie MacDonald.
United’s advantage lasted just three minutes. From McGowan’s cross, Robbie Neilson could only head his clearance into Skacel’s path during a joust with Elliott. The Czech nodded it cleverly against the balance of Pernis from around seven yards. Although his header lacked pace, it was sufficient enough to bounce off into the corner of the net for his 15th goal of a very productive season.
Hearts were controlling play as the interval approached. Darren Barr and Suso, the latter making his first start of the campaign, came close to scoring in a game which lacked nothing in terms of aggressive challenges between the respective players. That was underlined by the head bandage sported by McGowan after a nasty clash of heads.
The Edinburgh side also began the second period with impressive purpose. Pernis had to push Danny Grainger’s 20-yard free-kick wide on 55 minutes. From the resultant corner, the unmarked Marius Zaliukas headed over the crossbar from seven yards. Then came a right-footed cross by Driver which Skacel again headed against the balance of Pernis. This time, the Slovakian reacted in time to claw the ball back and allow a defender to clear.
It was fair to say that United’s second goal arrived totally against the run of play. From their first corner of the game, Mackay-Steven stroked the ball home from the edge of the penalty area. Questions will be asked about why the ball managed to travel that far, with both Elliott and Andy Webster having opportunities to clear for Hearts. But the visitors didn’t wallow in disappointment and continued attacking after introducing Templeton for McGowan and adopting a 3-4-3 formation.
Frustration was getting the better of Suso and he was cautioned for a late tackle on Neilson. The Spaniard then set off on a solo run to tee up Templeton, who cut inside Paul Dixon only to see his left-footed shot rebound off the crossbar.
Finally, the equaliser arrived, and it was every bit as admirable as Flood’s opener. Novikovas collected Elliott’s pass and cut inside Scott Robertson to lash the ball high into the top corner. He was accidentally nudged over in mid-handspring after a celebratory cartwheel, but his euphoria was understandable as a frustrating season nears its conclusion.
“In an official game that’s probably the best goal I’ve scored,” he said. “If you go on you must change the game, that’s what I tried. The manager told me to go forward and shoot to try and change the game.”
He carried those instructions out to perfection, although the celebration wasn’t so well executed. “The first jump was bad and Templeton was too close to me. Next time I promise to do it properly,” he laughed.
Peter Houston, the United manager, was gracious enough to concede Hearts had been the better team: “I don’t think we deserved three points. Hearts played well in the second half and they had chances from set-plays which we didn’t defend properly. We went 2-1 up against the run of play but credit to Hearts for coming back. They’re a good side, they’ve got a huge budget and lots of players. There’s lots of experience.
“I can’t compliment our boys enough because they hung in there. We’ve gone through the season unbeaten against Hearts and if we get ten points out of 12 against them next season I’ll be delighted. Hearts were bright and played with two wide players, which made for an open game. We were ahead twice and I thought we could hold on. But I can’t argue because Hearts deserved what they got.”
The pursuit of European qualification continues for Hearts, with two consecutive home games against Motherwell and St Johnstone imminent. If Hearts play with the appetite and panache they produced at Tannadice, they should achieve their aim without much difficulty.