A frustrating night for Hearts was tempered by the return of striker Uche Ikpeazu in a tousy goalless draw with Livingston. The imposing Englishman made his comeback as a substitute after four months out with a broken foot but could not prise open the well-drilled and resolute visiting defence.
Hearts enjoyed most of the pressure throughout the 90 minutes and their exasperation was clear at the final whistle. Livingston played to their strengths by stifling the game and trying to hit on the counter-attack, which brought them a hard-earned draw in the Capital.
Ikpeazu’s absence had been keenly felt by Hearts throughout the winter and his return was arguably the biggest positive for the home fans. They turned up hoping to see their team continue winning after five victories in their previous six matches. They had settle for stretching their unbeaten run to three.
Livingston’s form entering this fixture had been nothing short of horrendous following five successive defeats. Indeed, they hadn’t won at all since demolishing Hearts 5-0 in West Lothian in December.
In addition to Ikpeazu’s earlier-than-expected place on the substitutes’ bench, Olly Lee was restored by the hosts in place of Callumn Morrison. The Livingston manager Gary Holt made three changes after watching his team lose 3-0 at Motherwell on Saturday. Wing-backs Hakeem Odoffin and Ricki Lamie started, as did midfielder Steve Lawson.
The visitors were without the injured Dolly Menga, Lee Miller, Rafael De Vita and Scott Robinson due to injury and were pressed back from kick-off. The Hearts defender John Souttar had the evening’s first shot from 20 yards which swerved past the left post of Livingston goalkeeper Liam Kelly.
Steven Naismith’s precise head flick then landed in the net but was disallowed for offside. The home side were commanding the play and trying to get in behind their opponents, who remained rigid and disciplined in defence. Playing in the tight confines of Tynecastle suited Livingston’s style as it allowed them to close space and squeeze the game without being stretched open.
Kelly was forced down to his right to collect Arnaud Djoum’s low drive moments from half-time, but the interval arrived without a breakthrough. Much of the play had been untidy in and around midfield although Hearts did attempt to construct passing moves when space permitted them. Jake Mulraney looked to be their best creative outlet wide on the left.
Lee was cautioned for simulation early in the second half as Livingston’s aggressive pressing began to unsettle their hosts slightly. The West Lothian side forced a rare opportunity of their own by capitalising on Hearts’ hesitancy at the back. However, Odoffin’s right-footed shot across goal flew wide of the far post.
A few minutes later, the visiting captain Craig Halkett stepped forward for a vicious first-time shot from more than 30 yards. Hearts goalkeeper Colin Doyle stood up well to the task and got two firm hands behind the ball.
Ikpeazu received a rousing reception from the home support whenever he emerged from the technical area to warm up. The obvious question was how long manager Craig Levein would wait to introduce the hulking forward. On 65 minutes, Oliver Bozanic made way as Ikpeazu returned to competitive action. He entered the field to rapturous applause and inspired an instant rise in Hearts’ momentum.
He wrestled with Halkett and Gallagher and held off both at once before bursting into the penalty area. A slip killed his momentum but his desire to impact this match was unquestionable.
A reminder of Livingston’s capability on the break arrived on 70 minutes. Halkett set off down the right on a meandering run which ended with a perfect cross on to the head of striker Ryan Hardie. His glance goalwards was pushed over the crossbar by Doyle. The goalkeeper then stopped Alan Lithgow’s header from the resultant corner-kick.
Levein introduced Callumn Morrison and Demetri Mitchell for fresh energy but the pattern of play changed little in the final ten minutes. The hosts delivered numerous balls into the Livingston penalty area, one from Sean Clare was directed goalwards by Ikpeazu but Kelly collected. That was the end of the noteworthy action in a game where sparks threatened without materialising.
Hearts (3-4-2-1): Doyle; Souttar, Shaughnessy (Morrison 74), Berra; M Smith, Djoum, Bozanic (Ikpeazu 64), Mulraney (Mitchell 80); Lee, Clare; Naismith. Unused subs: Zlamal, Dikamona, Cochrane, Vanecek.
Livingston (3-5-1-1): Kelly; Gallagher, Halkett, Lithgow; Odoffin (Jacobs 72), Pittman, Lawson (Sibbald 76), Byrne, Lamie; Lawless; Hardie (Erskine 80). Unused subs: Stewart, Brown, Blues, Wylde.
Referee: A Muir