Hearts ended a testing week by holding on for a hardfought victory over Aberdeen to extend their advantage at the top of the Scottish Premiership to three points.
The Tynecastle side were two goals ahead at the break after an excellent first-half display in which both Arnaud Djoum and Steven Naismith were on target in the closing stages.
Aberdeen pulled one back early in the second half through a Gary Mackay-Steven penalty and pushed Hearts all the way, with Naismith missing a late spot-kick which would have made the finale less intense for the hosts. The final whistle was greeted with relief and delight from a home support clearly full of admiration for the way their patched-up team had held firm.
At the end of a week in which they learned that key duo John Souttar and Uche Ikpeazu had joined captain Christophe Berra on the sidelines with long-term injuries, there was a further blow for Hearts supporters as it emerged that another influential player, Peter Haring, would miss this match with a strain caused by a hernia. Michael Smith’s suspension placed further strain on Craig Levein’s squad for a clash with a side who had finished second in each of the previous four seasons.
Olly Bozanic, Clevid Dikamona, Callumn Morrison and Marcus Godinho - back after six months out - were all added to the side that started the 3-1 defeat at Ibrox. Naismith took the skipper’s armband in the absence of Berra and Souttar as he partnered Steven MacLean.
Despite the adversity they were faced with, Hearts started strongly and threatened after three minutes when Demetri Mitchell sent a low half volley inches wide of Joe Lewis’s left-hand post after being picked out by Bozanic’s corner 15 yards out. Five minutes later, Mitchell fizzed another half-volley over the bar after Olly Lee’s corner broke to him 25 yards out.
Hearts had been well on top for most of the half and they got the goal their play merited in the 37th minute when Djoum glanced home Callumn Morrison’s cross. The Tynecastle side doubled their advantage three minutes before the break when Naismith slotted home a penalty after referee Kevin Clancy deemed - dubiously - that Hearts’ top scorer had been fouled by Lewis Ferguson while trying to get on the end of Lee’s corner.
Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes made two changes at the break to try and get his team back into the game, with Niall McGinn and Scott Wright introduced in place of Dominic Ball and Sam Cosgrove. The changes sparked an upturn for the Dons and within ten minutes of the restart they pulled one back when Mackay-Steven converted a penalty after McGinn had been tripped by Godinho while cutting in from the left.
The visitors’ tails were up and, with Hearts having lost their authority of the first half, Levein sent on new signing Sean Clare after 61 minutes in place of MacLean. The former Sheffield Wednesday midfielder started in left midfield before being moved into a central role in the 75th minute as Hearts switched to three at the back when Aaron Hughes replaced Godinho.
Having ridden their luck at times to stay in front, the hosts had a great chance to restore their two-goal cushion when they were awarded a penalty after Clare was fouled by Shay Logan while trying to attack a Lee free-kick. Naismith saw his spot-kick pushed away by Lewis, however, leading to a nervy finale.
The hosts, aided by a stunning save from Zdenek Zlamal to deny Mackay-Steven in the 82nd minute, showed enough resilience to hold out for a hugely significant victory, which allows them the chance to go six clear at the top if they win away to Dundee on Tuesday.
Hearts: Zlamal, Godinho (Hughes 75), Dikamona, Dunne, Mitchell, Morrison, Bozanic, Lee, Djoum, MacLean (Clare 61), Naismith. Subs: Doyle, Amankwaa, Wighton, Hughes, Garuccio, Cochrane. Booked: Djoum (19), Godinho (29), Morrison (57), Naismith (71).
Aberdeen: Lewis, Logan, Devlin, Considine, Lowe, Mackay-Steven, Ball (McGinn 46), Shinnie, Ferguson, Cosgrove (Wright 46), Wilson (May 75). Subs: Cerny, Gleeson, Anderson, McLennan.
Booked: Ball (9), Mackay-Steven (20), Considine (35), Ferguson (67).
Referee: Kevin Clancy