Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes dismissed the idea that the players had been distracted by thoughts of next week’s Scottish Cup semi-final. But if his players’ minds were not on that Hampden showdown throughout this match, they will be after their manager tore strips off them in the aftermath.
If some were looking to book their berth in the side for the meeting with Motherwell, they will have to impress in training this week as the Pittodrie boss stated that few had cemented their place on the back of this performance.
Describing their display as laboured and tepid, he said he had hoped for a more dynamic and positive showing.
While the defeat allowed Rangers to leapfrog them into second place in the Premiership on goal difference, McInnes knows that situation is still redeemable. But, with such a big cup game looming, the Pittodrie boss hopes it will serve as a timely foot up the backside.
“We are disappointed. We came here 19 points ahead of Hearts and with so much to play for but I don’t think that showed in the game. Recently the competitive side of our game has been very good so we were looking for more of the same but we weren’t good enough in possession of the ball and ultimately we got a belt on the nose and lost the game.”
It maintains Hearts’ unbeaten run since they returned to Tynecastle and allowed them to add another clean sheet to an already healthy tally of 19 for the season.
“I was really pleased with the composure in possession, said Hearts manager Craig Levein, who side had looked comfortable throughout and in control from the minute they nabbed two quickfire goals early in the first half. “At times I have bemoaned our willingness to take the ball under pressure but that wasn’t the case today. Particularly in midfield we were good at that.”
In midfield they had players willing to work their socks off and smart enough to adhere to a game plan that squeezed Aberdeen and gave them few opportunities to get in behind them. While Aberdeen clattered the bar and the post during the 90 minutes, they were hardly a potent threat.
“They were the better team, hands down, and thoroughly deserved the points but they weren’t expansive,” said McInnes. “We beat ourselves by playing in the wrong areas and not being sharp enough and Hearts took full advantage of that.”
In a frantic start to the game both sides made a stab at gaining the upper hand but it was the home side who achieved it. Setting the tempo and winning individual battles, they dictated which areas of the park the game would be played and snuffed out the threat of the visiting wide men.
Industrious and showing an appetite for just their second win in eight games, they were quicker in thought and deed. Steven Naismith, along with Don Cowie, Michael Smith and David Milinkovic, was a dominant force as Hearts took the game to their visitors, who were unable to press quick enough or high enough.
But in the eighth minute Aberdeen did come close after Niall McGinn flighted in a free-kick which Andrew Considine attacked. Things may have been different if his header had found the net rather than the woodwork but Hearts survived that minor scare and set about making the breakthrough at the other end.
It came in the 18th minute, and was quickly followed up by a second goal two minutes later. For a side which has proved miserly in defence it was to prove more than enough.
The opener came from Naismith, who has shown time and time again why Hearts are keen to extend his current loan deal and ensure he is part of next season’s plans. He picked up possession from a throw-in and, cutting inside, he slammed a right foot effort beyond Joe Lewis.
Two minutes later Milinkovic made the most of Aberdeen’s inability to clear the ball, battling for the right to send his sixth goal of the season into the Aberdeen net, despite Anthony O’Connor’s desperate attempt to clear on the line.
It was as comfortable as Hearts could have hoped for after that against a side who have sent the standards as the best of the rest in recent years and who are determined to keep hold of that moniker beyond this season.
But they will have to improve on this performance in the final weeks of the campaign if they are to fend off Rangers and Hibernian.
Plugging the supply to the likes of Ryan Christie and McGinn, Hearts denied Aberdeen their favoured routes to goal and while they gave their guests little breathing space in the middle of the park, they still found the gaps and manufactured the time for them to exploit them.
To address the problems, the frustrated McInnes shuffled his pack and sent on Kari Arnason at the start of the second half and Gary Mackay-Steven soon thereafter and while they made a more positive contribution they were unable to dramatically alter the flow of the game. Adam Rooney was then sent on and saw an effort denied by the upright but in the end they got what they deserved from the game - nothing.