Hearts' problems run much deeper after defeat against Hibs in the Edinburgh derby
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Steven Naismith took charge of the Tynecastle side for the first time as interim manager following Robbie Neilson’s sacking, but the lack of quality in recent weeks continued. Kevin Nisbet’s goal midway through the second half settled what was an unspectacular encounter and inflicted further damage on Hearts’ hopes of securing third spot in the Premiership.
They sit five points behind third-placed Aberdeen after a run of six successive defeats. Just as worrying for those in charge in Gorgie is the sight of Hibs and St Mirren in close proximity in the league table. Having been seven points clear in third spot as recently as February, this continues to be a staggering collapse with precious little sign of recovery at the moment. There is a genuine danger of missing out on European football altogether unless the malaise is addressed.
Missing players is a factor with the spine of a team sitting in the Easter Road stand – goalkeeper Craig Gordon, centre-back Craig Halkett, midfielder Beni Baningime and last season’s top goalscorer, Liam Boyce. Nonetheless, there remains an expensively-assembled Hearts team still underperforming in maroon each week. That contributed heavily to Neilson’s removal, but the problems clearly run much deeper.
There was an air of pre-match unpredictability at Easter Road given Hearts’ managerial change and both teams’ poor form. One thing guaranteed in these fixtures is atmosphere with 3,800 away fans present and correct for the Edinburgh derby in contrast to its recent Glasgow equivalent.
No-one knew exactly what to expect from Hearts under Naismith, although the former Scotland internationalist promised an attack-minded team and set up to that effect. There was no Robert Snodgrass, who is not expected to feature for Hearts again after talks with Naismith. Hibs began with flexible 4-3-3/4-5-1 formation as manager Lee Johnson sought to arrest a run of four successive defeats. For Hearts, it was five in a row without victory at kick-off.
Aberdeen’s win at Ross County on Friday night opened up a five-point gap between them and the Tynecastle side in the race for the Premiership’s coveted third place. That added some extra pressure to the away camp in Leith, as if they needed any following events of the last few weeks.
Seeing full-back Michael Smith forced off with a suspected hamstring injury inside the opening minutes further compounded the difficulty. He stretched to intercept a loping ball over the top and immediately pulled up before being replaced by Nathaniel Atkinson. It was notable that Hibs put three early balls into the Hearts penalty area, all of which were met by key clearances from another Australian, Kye Rowles.
Zander Clark, returning from a hamstring injury, produced a vital save on 23 minutes to deny Hibs a certain opening goal. Joe Newell's header appeared to be chested by the Hearts midfielder Jorge Grant inside the visitors’ penalty area and the ball rolled perfectly for Elie Youan to strike from an acute angle. Clark’s outstretched right foot deflected the shot away. Moments later Youan sent another effort into the stand from Nisbet’s cutback.
The Hearts defence looked uneasy when pressed in their own half and Hibs sensed that quick balls in behind caused plenty trouble. The hosts lacked a decisive final ball too often, however. As an attacking threat, those in maroon were rarely seen until the final stages of the first half. Andy Halliday forced an important save from the home goalkeeper David Marshall with a back-post header from Barrie McKay’s corner on 36 minutes. Hearts finished the half better but lacked pace, energy and invention going forward.
It remained anyone’s game as the interval arrived without a goal. Grant was finding plenty space in the inside-left channel as he patrolled little pockets between the Hibs defence and midfield. The Englishman was fed the ball more often as the first half progressed as Hearts tried to seize on a potentially-productive attacking outlet.
The second period began with another crucial intervention from Rowles as he reached Lewis Stevenson’s low cross first to prevent Jake Doyle-Hayes tapping home from close range. Toby Sibbick then missed a straightforward clearance but Clark held Youan’s subsequent shot. Tensions in the technical area grew and referee John Beaton issued yellow cards to both Naismith and Johnson following one too many arguments between the pair. Such confrontations are often an amusing ingredient in Edinburgh derbies.
Hibs earned a breakthrough midway through the second half after some sustained pressure. Doyle-Hayes’ corner was headed across goal by Paul Hanlon at the back post, and Nisbet arrived for a side-footed volley high into the net. The home support erupted in delirium at seeing their side ahead. They might have struck again soon after when Nisbet nudged Rowles off the ball only to shoot wide of the far post.
Hearts substitute Stephen Humphrys fastened on to McKay’s through pass for a shot which Marshall’s torso repelled. Then came the unnecessary sight of various objects thrown by a section of Hibs fans dropping around McKay as he prepared to take a corner. Although the visitors badly needed a goal to maintain their recent derby record, they were struggling to properly test Marshall with shots on target. Captain Lawrence Shankland looked a frustrated figure on more than one occasion.
A late challenge by the Hibs substitute Josh Campbell on his Hearts counterpart Oretis Kiomourtzoglou sparked a late bout of handbags at ten paces involving numerous players from both sides. That was about as animated as the away side got. Their late attempt to force an equaliser was tame and unconvincing, and the final whistle confirmed their sixth straight loss.