HEARTS maintained their push for third place and qualification for the Europa League with a scintillating display at Tynecastle as rejuvenated striker Calum Elliot grabbed a double.
Elliot started his first league match of the season and was involved in all three goals during a performance which touched the heights as Kilmarnock’s defence toiled to combat his industrious attacking threat all afternoon.
Elliot had shown notable patience since returning from a spell on loan at Livingston in January, having often been left kicking his heels on the substitutes’ bench but, on this evidence, he would be a difficult man to dislodge from the forward line.
Kilmarnock were looking to improve a terrible league record with the Rugby Park men without a win since December.
And, just eight minutes into this encounter, home goalkeeper Janos Balogh was picking the ball out of his net. A textbook cross by Mehdi Taouil to the back post was powered into the net by Danny Invincibile, who had evaded Lee Wallace’s attentions.
The opener had arrived against the run of play with Hearts having started brightly and at a considerably higher tempo than their visitors. The impetus remained with them and Alan Combe, the Kilmarnock keeper, reacted instinctively to palm Andy Driver’s 12th-minute volley away for a corner. Ten minutes later, he could only parry a Marius Zaliukas flick from Bruno Aguiar’s free-kick and Elliot was on hand to convert the equaliser.
Seven minutes later, the striker was on cloud nine after putting Hearts in front. Wallace found him in the area and he used the outside of his right boot to prod a one-touch finish into the net, leaving Combe rooted to the spot.
Elliot ought to have secured his hat-trick before the interval when David Obua’s perfect left-sided cross somehow eluded both him and Aguiar six yards from goal. By now, Hearts were thriving with Elliot the catalyst for their dominance, but they still had to be mindful of Kilmarnock’s aerial threat. In the closing minutes of the first half, Balogh twice stopped headers from the imposing Kevin Kyle, and the second period began with Killie boss Jim Jefferies reorganising his side by replacing full-back Grant Murray with midfielder Willie Gibson. The changes had little effect as, four minutes after the restart, Aguiar enforced Hearts’ superiority with the third goal.
Again Elliot was involved, Driver’s cross landing at the striker’s feet only for Manuel Pascali to block. Aguiar was roaming around the near post and gratefully scooped the loose ball beyond Combe with his left foot. Ruben Palazuelos nodded over the crossbar before Kilmarnock substitute Ryan O’Leary bundled Elliot to the ground inside the penalty area as both players pursued a long ball. Surprisingly, Aguiar contrived to hit the post with the resultant penalty after the Gorgie natives had chanted for Elliot to take the kick.
Kilmarnock should have afforded themselves greater credibility in terms of the scoreline ten minutes from time with a glaring opportunity. Jamie Hamill’s flighted free-kick was headed across goal by Kyle and O’Leary, with the goal gaping and Balogh out of reach, managed to head wide. Balogh then held a low drive from Invincibile, but Hearts closed out the game knowing it would take a miracle to deny them a thoroughly deserved victory.
Hearts: Balogh, Neilson, Karipidis, Zaliukas, Wallace, Obua, Stewart, Palazuelos, Driver, Aguiar, Elliot.