The most important moment in any unbeaten run is the response when it ends. Hearts must spend the international break ensuring they react positively after losing for the first time this season at Ibrox.
Manager Craig Levein bemoaned his team gifting Rangers two early goals but felt they matched their hosts thereafter – despite spending the final 35 minutes with ten men after Michael Smith’s red card.
Hearts remain top of the Ladbrokes Premiership despite losing a 13-game unbeaten run in Glasgow. Now their lead is down to two points instead of five, as it was before the weekend, and Levein’s new-look side have to respond to defeat for the first time.
They were 2-0 down before they had settled into this match. Some naïve defending played into Rangers’ hands and, once ahead, Steven Gerrard’s team never looked like being overhauled. Hearts played well in spells and created several decent chances during the 90 minutes, but found goalkeeper Allan McGregor in inspired form.
“Every goal that is scored, you can trace it back and someone has made a mistake somewhere,” said Levein. “It’s disappointing because I felt we had a real chance of picking up all three points. I think our play was good enough to pick up all three points if we hadn’t gifted goals to Rangers. If they had to work for their goals, it would be slightly different. The players feel the same. They know themselves it’s a missed opportunity. We’re keen to play Rangers again.
“I have to be quite rounded and look at how the players have started the season, plus the effort they put in during the game. I’m just disappointed. There is frustration feeling that you could have done so much better.”
The tone for Ryan Kent’s outstanding afternoon was set on two minutes when the on-loan Liverpool winger opened the scoring thanks to a defensive error. Hearts rushed out as James Tavernier delivered a free-kick, leaving several blue jerseys in the penalty area. Claims for offside were ignored as Alfredo Morelos calmly teed up Kent for a straightforward conversion. It transpired Uche Ikpeazu was late leaving the penalty area.
“We just got it wrong,” admitted Levein. “We’ve worked that particular situation quite well in the past so you’ve got to take it on the chin. One player didn’t come out. For me, it’s a gift. If we didn’t gift Rangers the first two goals, then the stats say we’re in the game. That includes 35 or 40 minutes with ten men. I’d like to play that game again because I think it would be a different outcome.
“They came out so far that, once the offside wasn’t given, there was no chance to recover.
“This game, for me, was about being solid, creating opportunities, taking them and putting pressure on Rangers. We didn’t manage to get all that in the right order.”
Morelos scored on 12 minutes after Daniel Candeias dispossessed Demetri Mitchell and crossed to the Colombian. Then Scott Arfield converted on 32 minutes after the Hearts goalkeeper, Zdenek Zlamal, parried Morelos’ header. The speed of Rangers’ counter-attacks and the trickery of Kent proved to be major problems.
However, the reaction after the break from the Edinburgh club was encouraging. Even after Smith was sent off for a second caution on 55 minutes, they tried to play their way back into the match. McGregor had denied Steven Naismith and Ikpeazu in the first half with two excellent saves, so when he was beaten by Jimmy Dunne’s 67th-minute header it was no more than Hearts deserved.
They found the confidence to attack more and the hosts appeared slightly jittery despite their numerical advantage.
“I’m proud of the players for the way they knuckled down and went for the whole 90 minutes,” said Levein. “They didn’t give up, kept pushing and trying to play and create chances.
“On the other hand, I’m disappointed we gifted Rangers goals early in the match and didn’t score when we had opportunities. I’m happy with some things and not so with others.
“I don’t think Rangers were better than us. I think we had as good chances as I’ve ever had coming to Ibrox. Allan McGregor has made a couple of fantastic saves. I think the stats will say not much in possession or chances, and we had 40 minutes with ten men. I think shots on target were six to four.
“We shot ourselves in the foot today and gave Rangers the impetus they needed early in the match.
“Once we scored and got it back to 3-1, you saw how nervous Rangers were. They had the extra man and just punted long because they got nervous. I just wish we had 11 men on the field for those last 20 minutes or so.”