Ibrox during a crisis is an awkward, uncomfortable environment for anyone connected with it. Which should have been the perfect situation for Hearts to exploit. Unfortunately, by the time the Tynecastle side began imposing themselves on Rangers, they were 2-0 down and effectively beaten.
No-one expected Craig Levein to unleash his charges gung-ho style in Glasgow. However, they might have been rewarded if they had put Rangers under more pressure than they did. Graeme Murty’s side are vulnerable on the pitch and in turmoil off it right now.
Captain Lee Wallace and striker Kenny Miller are suspended by their club for alleged misconduct after last week’s 4-0 Scottish Cup hammering by Celtic. Rangers’ defence is less than convincing and fans conducted a silent protest during yesterday’s match, with banners reading: “No fight. No pride. Incompetent on and off the park. We deserve better.”
Hearts simply didn’t do enough to capitalise. It was, in many ways, a missed opportunity for Levein and his players. Jason Cummings’ composed finish and Daniel Candeias’ header put Rangers 2-0 ahead in the second half before Christophe Berra headed Hearts back into contention. They looked more likely to concede a third goal than force an equaliser, if the truth be told, leaving Levein lamenting their wastefulness at the end.
“I think, if we’d played better, we had a chance of winning the game,” said the visiting manager. “We didn’t pass the ball quickly or accurately enough. If we had done, I felt we’d have got more opportunities. Any time we did show quality in the final third – Don Cowie’s free-kick, a good ball from Lewis Moore, Kyle Lafferty’s shot off the post – it gave me some hope we could get a couple of goals.
“Too often, we entered the last third of the park and the cross or pass weren’t good enough. I’ve lost by more than 2-1 here before but I did feel we could’ve done much better. I feel we could’ve won the game. I don’t think Rangers were at their best but we assisted them by giving up possession of the ball too easily. Rangers had chances, as they do at Ibrox, but my overall feeling is one of disappointment.
“Every time we lose, I’m disappointed. I’m more disappointed in our ability to keep possession of the ball. We gave it up too easily, particularly in the first half. We managed to frustrate Rangers and limit them to a few chances but we still didn’t take care of the ball well enough during the whole game.
“The shape of the team was good. We frustrated Rangers and that was the plan. Then we wanted to counter-attack with speed and accuracy, and we had neither of those things going forward. We frustrated Rangers but didn’t do much more than that. We were slightly better in the second half but still didn’t pass the ball well enough.”
Levein’s assessment was spot-on. He was without winger David Milinkovic through injury and selected Danny Amankwaa instead. The Dane frequently failed to track runs by Rangers full-back James Tavernier and was withdrawn early in the second half. Joaquim Adao took his place but Hearts’ passing game remained absent.
Cummings’ composed finish and Candeias’ powerful header put the hosts in a commanding position. Only then did Hearts emerge from their shell and have a go, but by then there was merely a quarter of the match remaining. Berra glanced Cowie’s free-kick beyond Jak Alnwick – deputising in goal for the injured Wes Foderingham – and Laffery’s shot scuffed the outside of the post.
However, Berra’s wayward pass presented Cummings with a one-on-one against Jon McLaughlin. The goalkeeper prevailed with a fine block. Then he misjudged a bouncing ball emerging from his penalty box and substitute Alfredo Morelos would have put Rangers 3-1 up but for Michael Smith’s goal line clearance.
Murty remained on the edge of his technical area for much of the match. He has endured stinging criticism after last week’s debacle, but is determined to stay positive amid the bile. “In difficult conditions we had 27 goalscoring opportunities to their five. But for some lack of composure, we could have been out of sight. We made it a little edgy for ourselves but overall I am heartened by the response of the players.
“The attitude of the players has been spot on. We have been focused all week. We know things have been written in the press and said on TV that we can’t control. We haven’t let it affect us too much and I thought we took the game to Hearts. We have scored more goals than anyone else in this league. We create chances and we miss chances, but we need to be more clinical in both boxes.”
Asked about the fans’ protests, Murty remained dignified. He is aware he is unlikely to be Rangers manager next year and is wisely refusing to alienate anyone. He now faces the difficult prospect of leading his team to Celtic Park next week trying to stop a title party.
“The fans are fully within their rights to do what they see fit. I would never ever go against their wishes,” he remarked. “I said to the players we had to generate an atmosphere for ourselves. If we wanted something from them we needed to put on a performance. I thought there were times when we were on the brink of clicking into a high gear.
“I hope the fans saw some passion and intensity and a bit of quality. I thought the players stood up after a hard week. I think it shows the dressing-room is united. A lot of people outwith our dressing-room have said a lot of things without knowing too much. But, we have remained focused and just concentrated on the display.”