Dunfermline 0-0 Hearts verdict: Bleeding stopped - but more is needed
On Scottish Cup third-round day, there was a hint of embarrassment that neither Dunfermline nor Hearts were involved in proceedings.
For Hearts, in particular, considering the way they exited the competition catastrophically by losing to Brora Rangers. The Pars’ exit was a little more excusable, given their defeat came on penalties at Morton.
Those defeats resulted in a Championship clash on cup day at East End Park, with Hearts looking for one of the two wins that will secure the title and Dunfermline hoping to clamber back into the play-off positions.
So the 0-0 draw that they served up on a sun-kissed afternoon in Fife probably suited the hosts more, for their performance was a serious upgrade on Tuesday night’s 5-1 evisceration by local rivals Raith Rovers. At least Hearts did not lose, but this was another average performance by a team that should be striving for better.
A lot of changes
Dunfermline, scarred by Tuesday night’s loss that resulted in them departing the league’s top four, handed a start to Lithuanian internationalist Vytas Gaspuitis in central defence to try and keep the door bolted. He came on as a substitute for his national team during the week against Italy and this was his first start, allowing Lewis Mayo to bolster the midfield. Declan McManus and Iain Wilson also started, with Ewan Henderson, Kerr Mcinroy and Fraser Murray dropping to the bench. Striker Craig Wighton, on loan from the Tynecastle outfit, could not play against his parent club, so Dom Thomas replaced him.
Hearts manager Robbie Neilson also made changes following last weekend’s 3-2 home defeat by Queen of the South. Having signed on loan from Aberdeen during the week, Shay Logan was thrust right into the starting XI at right-back. Michael Smith and goalkeeper Craig Gordon returned after international duty and Peter Haring and Euan Henderson were also promoted to the first team. Ross Stewart, Mihai Popescu, Armand Gnanduillet, Christophe Berra and Andy Halliday made way, with the latter two not even in the matchday squad.
Far more solid
Gordon and Smith made a huge difference to Hearts. They offered a calming aura to those around them and made no mistakes themselves. Smith slotted in at centre-back and was a marked upgrade on Popescu and Berra, before switching to left-back later in the match and looking like a natural. Gordon made a magnificent save at the end to keep his clean sheet, and debutant Logan was busy in attack and robust in defence.
A lot of their attacking, especially in the first half, was ponderous. Liam Boyce did well in spearheading the attack, but far too often those around him were off the pace. The Northern Irishman cut a frustrated figure.
Hearts are clearly low on confidence amid the seethe of their disgruntled fanbase. Winning the title is all but a fait accompli, but it now can’t be won on Friday night even if they beat Alloa Athletic, which will no doubt irk BBC after they moved the match forward 24 hours in anticipation of a title party.
How the match unfolded
The opening exchanges were predictably cagey considering the recent travails of both teams. It was, however, the hosts who created the first notable opportunity. An incisive pass from Declan McManus sent Scott Banks scurrying towards the Hearts goal. Under the attentions of Aidy White, the young midfielder could only slide his effort wide of Gordon’s right-hand post. Banks ought to have done better.
McManus was a constant pest to the Hearts defence, dropping in between their defence and midfield and sending runners clear on either flank. Both Josh Edwards and Kevin O’Hara benefited from his creativity, but Edwards shot wide and O’Hara’s effort was batted away by Gordon.
Hearts looked the more disjointed of the two teams, understandable to a point considering the four outfield changes. Their best moment came just before the interval. Euan Henderson switched flanks and was set free in between Aaron Comrie and Gaspuitis. His effort from an angle inside the box was neither shot nor cross but as the ball fizzed across the six-yard box, someone in maroon should have been rushing in to convert what would have been a tap-in. As it was, the teams returned to their dressing-rooms level at the half-time break.
Both returned with vigour. Gaspuitis so nearly broke the deadlock with a thumping header from Banks’ corner that rattled crossbar on 49 minutes, while moments later Haring could only glance his own header wide in a crowded Dunfermline penalty box.
Hearts had improved on their opening 45 minutes, attacking with more speed and purpose. They came close again when Liam Boyce’s effort from a hooked cross by Gary Mackay-Steven was well saved by Owain Fon Williams.
The match was now being played in Dunfermline territory. Hearts had wrestled control of the midfield and hemmed in their opponents. However, they lacked any real imagination to break open a resolute rearguard, excellently marshalled by captain Euan Murray. Neilson shuffled the Jambos’ pack, bringing on Steven Naismith and Armand Gnanduillet to add more threat to his attack. Seconds after coming on, Gnanduillet had half-a-chance, but blazed his effort wildly over the bar.
Hearts were becoming exasperated. They appealed loudly for handball in the penalty box when the ball bounced up and hit Banks, allegedly on the hand, but referee Colin Steven just stared blankly at the claimants.
Naismith was next to snuff out an opportunity, but his scuffed effort hit Fon Williams in the chest before the Welshman was fouled in diving on the loose ball.
Hearts’ efforts petered out and, in fact, it was Dunfermline who came closest to a winner in the final stages, but Euan Murray’s firm downward header was brilliantly saved by Gordon.
A draw stops the bleeding for both, but Hearts are limping towards the title finishing line and while Dunfermline are back in the top four, their play-off place is far from certain.