Rampant Hearts moved five points clear at the top of the Scottish Premiership after a first-half goal from Steven Naismith ensured a triumphant return to match-day duties for Craig Levein.
Three weeks after suffering a heart scare, the manager watched from the Fir Park stand as his team maintained their perfect start to the league campaign. Naismith, fresh from scoring on his return to the Scotland set-up in midweek, continued his impressive form with his eighth club goal of the campaign midway through the first half. Thereafter the Tynecastle side had marginally the better of a tight encounter and held on for a hard-earned three points, much to the delight of their 2922 travelling supporters.
Levein made two changes to the side that started the 4-1 win over St Mirren a fortnight ago, with Steven MacLean and Ben Garuccio dropping to the bench and Callumn Morrison and Arnaud Djoum replacing them in the starting line-up. For the latter, it was a first start since he ruptured his Achilles’ tendon away to Ross County seven months ago. The Tynecastle side started in a 4-5-1 formation with top scorer Naismith wide on the left and Demetri Mitchell, who had played left midfield against St Mirren, dropping back to left-back.
Motherwell, unbeaten in their previous three matches, had the first attempt at goal when Curtis Main unleashed a ferocious volley from 25 yards out but Zdenek Zlamal threw himself to his right to push it behind for a corner.
The Hearts keeper then had to turn an angled shot from Richard Tait round his post before Motherwell captain Peter Hartley saw a powerful half-volley from the edge of the box deflected over the bar by Jimmy Dunne.
Hearts’ first opening of the match came in the 20 minutes when a lovely pass from Peter Haring sent Morrison racing down the right, but the teenager’s angled strike from the edge of the box was blocked by the palms of Motherwell keeper Trevor Carson.
The Tynecastle side gradually began to gain the upper hand and they went ahead in 28 minutes after some slack Motherwell defending and admirable persistence from Uche Ikpeazu. Well’s Carl McHugh was short with a passback to Trevor Carson and Ikpeazu sensed a chance, thundered into a 50/50 tackle with the stranded goalkeeper on the edge of the box and Naismith seized on the loose ball and steadied himself before firing into the open goal from 16 yards out. To add to the hosts’ troubles, Carson had to be carried off and replaced by Mark Gillespie after coming off worst in the challenge with Ikpeazu.
As “we shall not be moved” bellowed out from the jubilant travelling support, Hearts went close to doubling their advantage almost immediately when Haring headed over from close range after being picked out by Olly Lee’s free-kick from the left.
Motherwell threatened just before the break but Chris Cadden saw a low shot from the edge of the box gathered by Zlamal after he had been teed up from a Gael Bigirimana free-kick. Three minutes after the interval McHugh glanced a header into the arms of Zlamal after meeting an inswinging Bigirimana delivery from the left.
Gillespie was called into action for the first time when he clawed out a downward header from Dunne which looked like bouncing up into the corner of net. The sub goalkeeper had to make another vital save in the 58th minute to stop Mitchell firing in a powerful angled strike after the on-loan Manchester United full-back had burst into the box and on to a pass from Djoum.
Ikpeazu then curled an effort just wide from inside the box after being released by a Lee as Hearts looked to put the game beyond their hosts. New centre-back Clevid Dikamona was sent on for a debut as a 72nd-minute replacement for Morrison as Hearts changed to a three-man central defence in an effort to see the game out. Lee then thumped a powerful low strike inches wide from the edge of the box before Ikpeazu blazed high and wide from a good opportunity inside the area.
Those missed chances didn’t matter in the end as Hearts’ stunning start to the campaign continued.
Motherwell: Carson (Gillespie 32), Tait, McHugh, Aldred, Hartley, Cadden (Frear 61), Campbell, Rose, Bigirimana, Main, Johnson (Bowman 61). Subs: Grimshaw, Donnelly, Rodriguez Gorrin, Turnbull.
Hearts: Zlamal, Smith, Dunne, Souttar, Mitchell, Morrison (Dikamona 72), Haring, Lee (Bozanic 80), Djoum, Naismith, Ikpeazu (MacLean 86). Subs: Doyle, Wighton, Garuccio, Mulraney.
Ref: Bobby Madden
Join our Facebook group Our Edinburgh to share images and news from and around the Capital