In the wake of an insipid display at home to Kilmarnock in their last fixture prior to the international break, most supporters were fearing the worst in the two weeks leading up to this showdown with Steven Gerrard’s side, who had been scoring freely and went into the weekend as Premiership leaders.
The sense of trepidation intensified a little over an hour before kick-off when the starting line-up was announced and it emerged that the influential Peter Haring, who had been expected to return following a five-month absence, wasn’t deemed fit enough to make the squad. Oliver Bozanic and Aidan White were surprise starters in a Hearts team missing no less than seven key players - Steven Naismith, Conor Washington, Jamie Walker, Craig Halkett, John Souttar, Loic Damour and Haring.
While many had expected a one-sided encounter, nobody could have anticipated that it would be Hearts who would come flying out the traps and dominate the early stages. This is exactly what happened, however, as Craig Levein’s side replicated the high-intensity start they produced in the Betfred Cup quarter-final at home to Aberdeen last month.
After the excellent Uche Ikpeazu went close with a couple of early headers - one of which came back off the underside of the crossbar - Ryotaro Meshino gave Hearts a deserved lead in the sixth minute when he kept his composure to lob in the rebound from outside the box after Jake Mulraney had run on to an Ikpeazu flick and been denied by a brilliant Allan McGregor save.
“We always seem to start these games well and we managed to take the early chance,” said captain Christophe Berra, who was at his imposing best against Alfredo Morelos.
Although Hearts were unable to maintain the upper hand, they were able to remain competitive with their illustrious visitors and never really looked getting cut apart by a side who had scored 17 goals in their previous four league games.
The Rangers equaliser came six minutes before the break when the unmarked Morelos knocked in a Borna Barisic corner from close range after Aaron Hickey had needlessly conceded knocked the ball behind after getting himself in trouble while trying to play out from the back.
Thereafter, there were very few clear chances for either side. Steven Davis, Morelos and substitute Ryan Kent all threatened for the visitors after the break with strikes from outside the box while Berra saw a stoppage-time header held by McGregor. The point - achieved with particularly impressive performances from Berra, Ikpeazu, Sean Clare and Michael Smith - was welcomed by an appreciative Hearts support who had seen their team lose each of their previous seven matches against Rangers.
“Over the last few seasons Rangers have had the upper hand on us but today it was a very even game,” said Berra. “Over the piece there weren’t that many chances at either end so a draw was probably the fair result.”
While Hearts languish tenth in the Premiership table - eight points adrift of the top four and just three points off the bottom - this spirited display represented another glimmer of hope for under-pressure manager Levein amid a chastening start to the campaign. Although the aforementioned flop at home to Killie counted as a setback, the three games prior to that had brought a victory away to Hibs, the Betfred Cup elimination of Aberdeen and a goalless draw at St Mirren. Having seemingly stopped the rot, Hearts’ main priority now, ahead of unglamorous fixtures away to Livingston and St Johnstone, is finding a way to replicate the intensity they have shown in big matches when playing against the league’s supposed lesser lights.
“Against Aberdeen at home, Hibs and Celtic, we are always at it,” noted Berra. “Maybe because there’s no fear, there’s a bigger crowd and it’s live on television. We are happy with this result against Rangers and we will take the positives from it but we need to prove ourselves against the so-called lesser teams.
“When they come here and sit in and make themselves hard to break down before hitting us on the counter-attack, that’s where we’ve struggled over the last six to twelve months.
“There’s not going to be a tougher game than against Livingston in the next game. We all need to put in the work against lesser teams as we are nowhere near the standard of being able to just turn up and win. We need to grind out wins and win games the hard way first. We have been nowhere near the standard we know we’re capable of. This is a small step but it’s been nowhere near good enough.”