Hearts up to third after surviving Motherwell barrage as Gordon and Shankland make difference
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The striker pounced on a mistake to give Hearts the lead against the run of play in the first half and a second-half double from Alan Forrest on the counter-attack was sufficient to secure a 3-0 victory over Motherwell.
It propels Robbie Neilson’s men up to third in the table going into the international break and ended a run of four straight league defeats at Fir Park.
The victory, however, was far less comfortable than the scoreline suggested and came at a cost. Alex Cochrane limped off with an injury before half time and Gordon, the Scotland goalkeeper, also needed treatment after pulling off a wonder save – one of many – to deny Matt Penney from distance.
It was one of 25 attempts made by the home team, who peppered Gordon’s goal and were denied by the woodwork three times.
Penney also smacked the bar, Gordon superbly tipped a Kevin Van Veen header onto the post and former Hibs defender Paul McGinn also hit the upright from close range. But Gordon’s heroics and clinical finishing from Shankland and Forrest ultimately made the difference.
Buoyed by guiding Hearts to a first European group stage win in 18 years in Riga on Thursday, Neilson avoided the temptation to rotate too much by making just three changes.
New signing Ortestis Kiomourtzoglou came in for his debut, replacing Jorge Grant in midfield and lasting the whole 90 minutes. Forrest came in for Josh Ginnelly and Lewis Neilson picked up where he left off at centre-back in Riga, where Craig Halkett limped off with a recurrence of his hamstring injury.
The international break will give Halkett time to recuperate and, after such a hectic schedule, provides Hearts with a chance to recharge their batteries before two huge games at Tynecastle Park against Rangers and Fiorentina early next month.
They will have to start much better than they did at Fir Park to get results in these games coming up. Motherwell had the ball in the net within a few minutes, only to have it ruled out for offside and a loose pass from Michael Smith gave Van Veen an opportunity to shoot narrowly wide moments later.
But it was a defensive error at the other end which gifted Shankland the opening goal on 18 minutes. Stephen Kingsley’s long ball over the top to seek out Forrest should have been dealt with by back-pedalling Motherwell defender Ricki Lamie. But his miscued header dropped invitingly for the unmarked Shankland on the penalty spot. His first strike was parried by Liam Kelly but fell rebounded into the striker’s path and and the rebound was dispatched, left footed, with conviction.
It was a rare moment of positivity from Hearts in a first half bossed by the home team. Poor decision-making and poor execution in the final third, however, let Hearts off the hook.
McGinn blasted the best chance over the bar and then missed a much bigger one at the start of the second half, hitting the post from close range after Blair Spittal’s header had rebounded into his path off the opposite upright.
It much have felt like it wasn’t going to happen for Motherwell when Hearts recouped by doubling their lead within minutes, Shankland cushioning a lay-off for Forrest, running across him, to steer a left-foot shot into the bottom corner.
But the home side came again. Gordon produced another one of his wonder saves to tip a Van Veen header onto the post as Motherwell rallied and Hearts rang the changes in a bid to stem the tide, Robert Snodgrass introduced for his debut in central midfield.
Motherwell were still in the ascendency when Forrest’s goal in the 90th minute ended any prospect of a late comeback. The former Livingston winger tapped home the third and his second from Nathaniel Atkinson’s cut back. It was the type of clinical execution of a chance that Motherwell could not produce.