Hearts make it three unbeaten

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A much-changed Hearts side were buffeted by strong winds and, for long periods of their SPL trip to Pittodrie, by an Aberdeen side they successfully held to a 0-0 draw.

One point gained rather than two lost is how the 600-strong travelling Jambos support will view the outcome as Hearts remain in the slipstream of St Johnstone and Motherwell, their rivals in fourth and third place respectively in the SPL.

A second conclusion at which the maroon faithful may arrive is that their unfamiliar-looking team showed endeavour and determination amid difficult conditions.

Jambos boss Paulo Sergio said his desire to have “everyone fresh for the future” was his reason behind a wealth of unexpected changes to his team, but if his ulterior motive was to give Hibs counterpart Pat Fenlon additional food for thought ahead of the New Year derby, then the Portuguese certainly succeeded.

Scott Robinson’s low centre of gravity and mobility in midfield might have served Hearts well in such blustery conditions, but the young midfielder dropped out of the squad altogether despite showing up well in recent appearances. David Obua, his replacement, typically displayed flashes of his undoubted natural talent but also showcased the poor decision-making and pass-selection that has dogged his Tynecastle career. Andy Driver, who earlier this month indicated his desire to leave Hearts, made his first start since helping the Jambos to a 2-0 derby win over Hibs in August.

The youthful occupants of the away bench may prove indicative of the make-up of the majority of the Hearts first team in the coming months, with Colin Hamilton and Jonathan Stewart both taking their places among the visiting substitutes. Billy King, a prolific goalscorer at under-19 level this season, was perhaps a more notable inclusion among the travelling reserves, as he was called into the 18-man matchday squad only at the last minute due to an injury during the pre-match warm-up to on-form forward Stephen Elliott. It remains to be seen if the Irish striker will be fit to feature in the all-Capital clash.

Such windy conditions as those in the north-east last night do not make for much enjoyment for those on the pitch or in the stands, and a degree of relief washed over both teams when referee Brian Winter blew the final whistle.

Pittodrie and a 250-mile round-trip may represent an unappealing proposition at the best of times for most visiting clubs, but with empty seats far outnumbering the 9210 crowd and a fierce, cold wind battering the famous old ground, Hearts were afforded a most unforgiving north-east welcome. The weatherbeaten locals are accustomed to gritting their teeth in the face of a howling gale from the North Sea, but nothing could have prepared the likes of Australian Ryan McGowan or Ugandan midfielder Obua for this.

Such was the strength of the swirling gusts in the first half, Hearts centre back Marius Zaliukas looked like an action hero in slow motion as he tracked back into the wind to intercept a long ball over the visitors’ backline. Dons goalkeeper Jason Brown was similarly frustrated by the elements as Hearts fashioned the game’s first shot on goal after 26 minutes. The goalkeeper’s clearance forward was cleanly struck upfield, but the ball blew back towards his 18-yard line, where John Sutton acrobatically half-volleyed straight at the Welsh goalkeeper.

Sixty seconds later, Aberdeen followed their opponents’ attacking lead by drawing Marian Kello’s first save of the game. Richard Foster’s cutback from the left-hand side of the box penetrated a previously watertight Jambos rearguard, and Ryan Jack’s 15-yard strike drew a spectacular dive across goal by the Slovakian, who caught the ball comfortably.

For all that the hosts’ subsequent dominance of the remaining 20 minutes of the opening period kept the Hearts defence on its toes, Aberdeen failed to threaten Kello’s goal.

Rudi Skacel was one of just three players who took to a bitter north-east evening baring a short-sleeved shirt – the others being Andy Webster, who covered his forearms for the second half, and Aberdeen’s Andrew Considine – but the Czech’s willing endeavour was replaced by the all-action style of Ian Black at the half-time break. Black solidified a porous Hearts midfield and displayed the type of confidence and short, constructive passing that defined impressive individual displays against Motherwell and Dunfermline in the past fortnight.

Dons boss Craig Brown had voiced his admiration of Hearts’ creative talent prior to the match, pinpointing the likes of Driver and David Templeton as potential matchwinners. But, while the pair of Hearts wingers gained little joy and precious few opportunities to dazzle with their wing play, it was left to a player rejected by Hearts to provide a spark early in the second half.

Soon after the restart, Aberdeen midfielder Kari Arnason, who failed to earn a contract with Hearts after a trial in the summer, flashed a 20-yard strike narrowly wide of Kello’s right-hand post from a free-kick. Sutton scored two goals for Hearts against Aberdeen at Tynecastle in August, but the lofty striker, utilised infrequently by Sergio, endured a difficult time against the Dons this time round. In fairness, the flight of the long balls directed at him was invariably unpredictable.

Driver broke free of the Dons back line in a manner Sutton strove for, but the young winger took a clumsy second touch that allowed the ball to roll into the arms of goalkeeper Brown, much to the frustration of a Jambos front line that was starved of much attacking promise from their team.

As they had done in the first half, Aberdeen rallied during the latter 20 minutes of the second. With the wind at their backs, the Dons came close to claiming a second Edinburgh scalp at Pittodrie having seen off Hibs earlier this month.

In their most promising attack, Jack’s cross was headed into the ground and inches over the crossbar by Rob Milsom after a slick move instigated by Isaac Osbourne.

As Hearts prepare to face Osbourne’s brother Isaiah and Hibs at Easter Road, they will be heartened by a third successive clean sheet and having now gone two games without a booking to their name.

They emerged with a valuable point from a cold and windswept Pittodrie – but can they withstand the relative heat of the Edinburgh derby?