Christophe Berra: Poor Rangers display will have no bearing on May 25
From the euphoria of reaching their first Scottish Cup final in seven years a week previously, Hearts’ supporters were reunited on Saturday with that familiar sense of gloom and exasperation which has accompanied so many of their league matches over the past few demoralising months.
It seemed reasonable to expect that there might be a bounce of positivity around a sun-kissed Tynecastle, both on the pitch and in the stands, following the semi-final victory over Inverness Caledonian Thistle, but instead the hosts produced one of their most lame displays of the season in front of a group of fans whose enthusiasm levels were swiftly killed by the way an impressive Rangers side seized command from the outset. Steven Gerrard, the Ibrox side’s manager, said afterwards his team “nearly got the perfect performance”.
For his Hearts counterpart, it was quite the opposite. Craig Levein was frustrated with his players in the early stages as he cajoled from the sidelines, imploring them to press up aggressively on their opponents, the way they had done in the two home matches against Celtic this season, instead of dropping off and allowing the composed and authoratitive visitors to play the game at their own pace. “Our pressing was nowhere near good enough to put pressure on the ball higher up the field,” the manager lamented. “We’re usually quite good at it but we didn’t quite get it right this time.”
For all that Rangers were dominant as they cruised to their seventh consecutive win over Hearts, their first two goals stemmed from the hosts being caught in possession in dangerous areas inside their own half. The first, a clinical finish from Jermain Defoe in the 15th minute, came after Craig Wighton, a late inclusion in the starting line-up after illness befell Sean Clare, was dispossssed by Jon Flanagan midway inside his own half.
Following spurned opportunities by both Uche Ikpeazu and Wighton, Rangers doubled their lead in the 36th minute, when Ryan Jack robbed Oliver Bozanic, played the ball to Daniel Candeias and surged forward to receive the return pass before despatching a shot beyond the exposed Zdenek Zlamal.
Rangers went further ahead three minutes after the break when Nikola Katic forced in a Candeias delivery from close range. Substitute Steven MacLean provided some momentary cheer for the Hearts supporters who had chosen not to leave the stadium early when he headed in a Jake Mulraney cross with 16 minutes left, but it couldn’t disguise what had been a grim afternoon for the hosts, whose hopes of qualifying for Europe via their league position now appear dead in the water.
“For as much as we couldn’t get close to them in the first half, we did give them two goals, getting caught in the middle,” said captain Christophe Berra. “Two passes, clinical. If we hadn’t done that and maybe gone in at half-time 0-0, without creating too much in the first half, we could have said ‘right, ok, we have not played yet, but it’s still 0-0. Let’s change it for the second half’.
“But goals change games. The second half was a wee bit better. We had some opportunities and there were a couple of good saves from Allan McGregor. But apart from when we played Rangers at home the last time, we find it hard to deal with them. It’s something we need to rectify.”
The only slight source of solace for Hearts supporters is that, on the previous occasion they reached the Scottish Cup final, in 2012, they fell to a similarly meek home defeat against Rangers in their first post-split fixture, immediately after their semi-final victory. In total, they won only one – and lost three – of their final five league fixtures seven years ago before rousing themselves to beat Hibs 5-1 in the final.
Berra is adamant that performances such as Saturday’s won’t have any effect on the final against Celtic on May 25, which now looks like being Hearts’ season-defining fixture,
“I don’t think so,” he said. “Everyone will be looking forward to the cup final. It’s a big occasion. It’s natural that everyone will give you that extra 5-10 per cent. Not that we don’t always give 100 per cent, but sometimes you just get that bit more motivation. We will have nothing to lose. We will be the underdogs. Hopefully we have a good gameplan and we will give it a go.
“Every game we go into a game, we want to win, but in this one we weren’t good enough. We have been in positions before where we have had a couple of bad results, but we always pick up a big win. There is no better place to do it than the cup final, but we’ve got big fish to fry before that, starting against Hibs next week.”