Hearts’ high five sends out a message to title rivals

Soufian El Hassnaoui opened the scoring. Osman Sow, below, got the third before half-time. Pictures: Toby Williams
Soufian El Hassnaoui opened the scoring. Osman Sow, below, got the third before half-time. Pictures: Toby Williams
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Hearts are doing everything possible to heap pressure on Rangers in the race for the Championship’s automatic promotion place.

A 5-0 destruction of Livingston showed their ruthless attitude to the task. Not for a minute did the visitors look like taking anything from Tynecastle. Meanwhile, Rangers looked on through the BBC Alba cameras as a six-point gap opened up between them and the league leaders. They play tonight against Hibs at Ibrox.

With 22 goal attempts to Livingston’s eight, the statistics show this game was every bit as one-sided as the scoreline suggests. Hearts were rampant, unstoppable, ruthless, clinical – take your pick from any list of superlatives. Yet Livingston, for those who have seen them under John McGlynn, are a better side than they looked. Manager John McGlynn was without two first-choice centre-backs in Simon Mensing and Declan Gallagher, and his makeshift defence was simply overwhelmed by Hearts’ cold-blooded forwards.

Soufian El Hassnaoui scored his first goal for the Edinburgh club, Osman Sow got two, while Jamie Walker and James Keatings grabbed one each. At one point in the second half, the Livingston goalkeeper Darren Jamieson was preventing a mauling all by himself with save after save.

Robbie Neilson, the head coach at Tynecastle, is quite content if Rangers are feeling the heat in the Championship race, even though the season still has more than seven months to run.

“It’s up to them if they want to feel it. As long as we keep winning then we will be top of the league. That’s it,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it is Rangers, Hibs or Queen of the South. If we keep taking care of our stuff, we will be up at the top. It’s important we keep pushing. It would have been easy to say ‘well done lads and we will see you in a few days’. The game is now finished and we need to start gearing up for Queen of the South next as that will be a tough one. It will be a big atmosphere down at Palmerston so we will need to be prepared for it.”

Neilson wasn’t entirely satisfied, though, despite his team cruising to a five-goal victory. “I was pleased and we played well at times but I felt we could have done more,” he explained. “We did move the ball quickly and exposed them but we didn’t do as much as I would have liked. Even though we scored five goals, we probably should have scored more.

“Their keeper had some great saves but our finishing and decision making wasn’t great. If we are going to win the league, we need to take every opportunity to rack some goals up. We are getting chances which is pleasing but we need to score them. We had players coming off the bench desperate to score and that’s what you want.”

Neilson expressed sympathy with his Livingston counterpart. McGlynn’s defensive problems progressed to a crisis during the game when left-back Jason Talbot was forced off with a head gash after colliding with the man mountain that is Sow. While he was off, Hearts scored their second goal. Livingston played the remainder of the match with two central midfield players, Keaghan and Kyle Jacobs, in the right-back and left-back slots respectively.

“Hearts dominated from start to finish and we didn’t get going,” admitted McGlynn. “We might have lost a few more in the second half if it wasn’t for our goalkeeper. I felt before this match we’d played well in every game but I can certainly say now that’s one game where we haven’t turned up at all.

“It’s very disappointing. A big occasion, big crowd, big atmosphere and we didn’t get going. We did better than that at Pittodrie in midweek. We were looking for a similar performance but we made it far too easy for Hearts and didn’t get near them. Hearts won’t get an easier game all season. We had chances but we’re clutching at straws because for every one I could mention they could probably mention two or three.

“Gary Glen had a chance in the first half that would have made it 2-1 but he put over the crossbar. Mark Burchill was through in the second half but didn’t take his chance. We could muster up four or five chances and on another day they might have got us back into the game, but there was a big gulf between the sides unfortunately.

“It was an awkward one when Jason Talbot went off injured and they scored the second. We don’t have a lot of defenders with Declan Gallagher, Simon Mensing and Brad Donaldson all out. It was a balancing act because we hadn’t started well and I didn’t want to put a young boy into that situation. We had to shuffle things about but, for however long it was, you have to survive with ten men from time to time. Jason received eight stitches in a head wound.”

From the beginning, Hearts’ hunger for the three points was clear. They suffered a 4-1 Petrofac Training Cup loss to Livingston at the Energy Assets Arena last month, but the fringe players and teenagers who featured that night were nowhere to be seen yesterday.

El Hassnaoui opened the scoring on 14 minutes. He took Sam Nicholson’s pass and spun to drive the ball low into the net from around 20 yards. Walker doubled the advantage with the aid of a deflection on the half hour after cutting in from the left. Livingston’s defence was guilty of allowing the opposition too much time and space to size up their shots. Burton O’Brien then teed up the third goal with a tame backpass, which Sow fired low past Jamieson.

Livingston rallied after the interval and Mark Burchill, their veteran player/assistant manager, squandered a chance to reduce the deficit when one-on-one with Hearts goalkeeper Neil Alexander. After the outstanding Morgaro Gomis struck the bar with a vicious drive, substitute Keatings converted Dale Carrick’s low cross for the fourth. Sow nonchalantly flicked Callum Paterson’s cross into the corner of the net for the fifth.

Perhaps more than any other match to date this season, yesterday showed the plethora of attacking options at Neilson’s disposal. “I am trying to give them all a bit of game time and I don’t want to just have two guys as a partnership,” he explained. “We just need to make sure they are used to playing with each other. If one gets injured then it might take time for them to get a relationship.

“I will try and give them game time to get that relationship and we need them to form quickly, so if they have it already then it helps us. There is competition for places and there were guys disappointed who weren’t picked for the game. The last few games they have done great but I pick a team to win a game and that is the important thing.

“I pick a team to win but also to keep the others happy. I need to keep them motivated. It is a team game, it’s a long season, there will be chances and they must be ready to take part.”