Rangers v Hearts final word: Not at any stage did the Ibrox side look threatened by Jambos
Hearts unable to lay a finger on Rangers as they exit Betfred Cup semi-final stage again
For the second successive year, Hearts’ Betfred Cup adventure ended at the semi-final stage against one of the Glasgow two. Celtic prevailed at Murrayfield last season and Rangers recorded a straightforward victory at Hampden Park this time.
The first match of Austin MacPhee’s interim managerial tenure did not reveal an awful lot of unknowns about the Edinburgh side following Craig Levein’s sacking on Thursday. Filip Helander’s strike seconds before half-time, plus a second-half double from Alfredo Morelos earned Rangers a Betfred Cup final berth on December 8 against Celtic.
They did not look in serious danger at any stage of the afternoon, if the truth be told. Hearts were organised and dogged in the first half but could not stem the flow of pressure after falling behind. Rangers seized on that ruthlessly and exposed every defensive weakness in their opponents following the interval. Morelos in particular was a relentless threat.
More critical fixtures lie ahead for Hearts as they try to fight their way out of the relegation zone in the Ladbrokes Premiership. Dropping in there ultimately cost Levein his job, and a new man is currently being sought to rejuvenate their league form. If assistant coach MacPhee is auditioning for the role at the moment, this result did not help his cause.
Intriguingly, he deployed his team in a 4-3-3 formation to match Rangers man for man in midfield. He left Uche Ikpeazu among the substitutes and granted Craig Wighton his first outing of the season after injury. Ryotaro Meshino was also reinstated to the Hearts starting line-up, while Steven Naismith returned to the bench to join Jamie Walker. Rangers started Ryan Kent in the hope of exposing Hearts in wide areas on the expansive Hampden Park surface. The ploy worked.
Supporters from Edinburgh were vastly outnumbered by their Glasgow counterparts on a damp afternoon in Mount Florida. With Celtic already through to the final of this competition, Rangers’ motivation to join them was merely heightened. They would have moved ahead on 17 minutes had the Hearts defender Michael Smith not cleared James Tavernier’s low cross off the toes of Morelos.
Ryan Jack then forced Hearts goalkeeper Joel Pereira down to his right to beat away the Scotland midfielder’s driven left-footed attempt. The dominant colour in the game was gradually turning blue and Smith had to block again, this time from Glen Kamara, after 22 minutes. Sixty seconds later, Pereira was pushing Tavernier’s toe-poke for a corner.
Losing Glenn Whelan with a hamstring complaint after 27 minutes robbed Hearts of significant midfield experience at a crucial point. Andy Irving took his place. MacPhee would have noted his team keeping excellent shape and making it difficult for the opposition to play through them, but the wide areas continued to be Rangers’ target of attack.
MacPhee made a second change five minutes before half-time. Striker Steven MacLean had been booked and then slid in on the Rangers goalkeeper Allan McGregor. After another warning from referee John Beaton, he was replaced by Ikpeazu to avoid the possibility of a red card. Kent then struck the outside of Hearts’ goalpost with an attempt from 20 yards.
Just as the Tynecastle side were hoping to reach half-time unharmed, the opening goal arrived. A low cross from Morelos found the unmarked Helander around eight yards out for a straightforward finish. The second arrived two minutes after the restart as Morelos gratefully tapped home Tavernier’s low delivery and give his side a useful two-goal cushion.
MacPhee was restricted for options having made two substitutions already. Ikpeazu and Wighton both came close with headers from corners soon after, which would have given Hearts a foothold in this tie. Then Naismith made his long-awaited entrance. He replaced Smith, who immediately put an ice-pack on his quad in the technical area. More enforced reorganisation left a maroon back four of Sean Clare at right-back, Aaron Hickey and Christophe Berra at centre-back, with Aidy White at left-back.
Pereira tipped away a certain third from Jack near the hour as Rangers exploited spaces in the final third. It was not long until they did ripple the rigging once more. Kent’s run and cross from the left was controlled and buried by Morelos to extinguish any slender possibility of a Hearts comeback.
Ikpeazu appealed for a penalty after a challenge inside the area from Barisic but Beaton was not interested in the claim. Rangers substitutes Jermain Defoe and Scott Arfield brought out an excellent double save by Pereira in the closing minutes. This tie was over long before then, however.
Rangers (4-3-3): McGregor; Tavernier, Goldson, Helander, Barisic; Jack (Arfield 77), Davis, Kamara; Ojo (Defoe 82), Morelos, Kent (Aribo 66). Unused subs: Foderingham, Flanagan, Katic, Barker.
Hearts (4-3-3): Pereira; Hickey, Smith (Naismith 53), Berra, White; Clare, Whelan (Irving 27), Bozanic; Wighton, MacLean (Ikpeazu 40), Meshino. Unused subs: Doyle, Walker, Brandon, Keena.