Three first-half goals underpinned Rangers’ victory over Hearts at Ibrox as the league leaders suffered their first defeat of the season.
Ryan Kent, Alfredo Morelos and Scott Arfield scored to put the hosts in command, a position they didn’t relinquish for the rest of the afternoon.
Michael Smith was sent off after the break to compound a difficult day for the Edinburgh club. The game was effectively over by the 32nd minute, though, when Arfield dispatched the third past Zdenek Zlamal in the visitors’ goal.
Rangers were on top from the first minute on a wet and slippy pitch, although it must be said Hearts did still threaten on several occasions but found Allan McGregor in top form each time. Defensive decision-making was their downfall, especially for the first two goals, and when presented with scoring opportunities Rangers were clinical.
Craig Levein and his players arrived in Glasgow unbeaten in 13 competitive games so far this season. However, their club had managed just one solitary top-flight win at Ibrox since 2004. With fit-again Uche Ikpeazu leading their attack once more, they would have hoped to cause some damage.
This was always to be one of the sternest tests of Hearts’ title-challenging credentials. Rangers were in midweek European duty and were buoyed by a 3-1 victory against Rapid Vienna. They left the former Tynecastle forward Kyle Lafferty on the substitutes’ bench and opened the scoring within two minutes.
Controversy surrounded the goal as the Hearts defence sprung forward claiming offside when James Tavernier delivered a free-kick deep into their penalty area. The Main Stand assistant referee, Frank Connor, kept his flag down, leaving a handful of home players alone in the box. Morelos calmly brought the ball down and teed up Kent for a simple conversion.
Visiting players complained strongly to the officials that Morelos and others in blue were offside, but to no avail. Hearts could easily have been level moments later. The Rangers goalkeeper Allan McGregor used his legs to thwart Steven Naismith and then produced an outstanding one-handed stop from the imposing Ikpeazu.
The home advantage doubled on 12 minutes as Hearts struggled to cope with Rangers’ counter-attacks. Daniel Candeias dispossessed Demetri Mitchell inside the box and slid a low cross towards the onrushing Morelos. The Colombian impishly flicked the ball high into the net with his back foot, and with that Rangers were comfortably in command of this match.
Kent was having an excellent afternoon and might have put his team 3-0 up had Zdenek Zlamal not emerged quickly from his goal to repel the forward’s shot at the end of another quick attack.
The third did arrive just after the half-hour mark. Tavernier’s deep cross from the right was headed goalwards by Morelos at the back post, Zlamal saved but merely pushed the ball out to the feet of Arfield. He made no mistake slotting home from around six yards.
Hearts’ task was unenviable facing a three-goal deficit at the interval. Things were to worsen, however. Connor Goldson should have made it four early in the second period before Smith was dismissed. He impeded Kent and was ordered off for a second caution, leaving the visitors with ten men.
Zlamal parried Tavernier’s drive and Hearts then managed to force their way forward. They won a free-kick wide on the left which Olly Lee hoisted into the opposition box. Centre-back Jimmy Dunne met the ball with a glancing downward header which beat McGregor and bounced into the net.
It was only likely to be a consolation but Rangers became rather slack in defence thereafter. Another opportunity fell to Arnaud Djoum but McGregor was equal to the Cameroonian’s 18-yard attempt. Rangers tightened up again to see out the rest of the game and leave Hearts to lick their wounds during the upcoming international break.
Rangers (4-3-3): McGregor; Tavernier, Goldson, Worrall, Flanagan; Arfield (Halliday 83), Coulibaly, Ejaria (Jack 66); Candeias (Lafferty 87), Morelos, Kent. Unused subs: Foderingham, McCrorie, Katic, Middleton.
Hearts (4-4-2): Zlamal; M Smith, Souttar, Dunne, Mitchell (Wighton 79); Djoum, Lee (Garuccio 73), Haring, Naismith; Ikpeazu, MacLean (Dikamona 57). Unused subs: Doyle, Bozanic, Amankwaa, Morrison.
Referee: John Beaton.