Destiny still in Hearts' hands but rapid improvement is vital to European aim
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However, concern is growing over recent form after successive league losses to clubs bottom of the table. Saturday’s 2-1 defeat at St Johnstone followed Dundee’s victory by the same scoreline at Tynecastle Park.
A measure of this Hearts team’s character will be how quickly they recover from these setbacks. Third place and guaranteed European football is theirs only to throw away at this stage of the campaign.
Performances like that in Perth must improve significantly. Hearts travel to St Mirren this weekend, followed by a home match against Aberdeen and then a trip to Dundee United. It is imperative that they rediscover form in those games to avoid a needlessly-nervy spring period.
The tone for Saturday's loss was set inside the opening minute when Ali Crawford scored St Johnstone’s first goal. With captain Craig Gordon and top scorer Liam Boyce isolating due to Covid, and defender Michael Smith injured, it was reserve keeper Ross Stewart picking the ball out of the visitors’ net.
A quick reply brought Nathaniel Atkinson his first goal in maroon but a free header from a textbook free-kick allowed Jamie McCart to win the game for Saints after half-time. A scathing reaction from the travelling support at full-time underlined the aforementioned concern.
Hearts have taken only one point from the last 12 and haven’t won any of their last five games inside 90 minutes. “You can’t just sit there thinking we are going to get out of it. The only people who can get out of it is us with hard work,” said Stewart after his first senior appearance in 11 months.
“We had a good first half of the season and we are going through a blip now, but only we can get us out of it. We need to react next week. We want to be cementing that third place and looking upwards but just now we are not there.”
If anyone at Riccarton had prematurely decided third place was secured, they are now thinking again. There is sufficient quality in the squad to recapture the early-season form which brought so many plaudits but Hearts are weaker without Gordon.
Stewart was not to blame for any of St Johnstone’s goals but the captain’s absence removes so much leadership from the Tynecastle side. Stewart acknowledges that he has one of the hardest jobs in football to dislodge the Scotland goalkeeper.
“Definitely but the big man has been brilliant with me since I’ve come in,” he said. “I’ve learned so much off him but when I do get an opportunity I want to take it. I wanted to bring the three points back but it wasn’t to be.
“We had a couple of chances that came off the woodwork so I think we maybe deserved a draw. We are still third but we have to pick ourselves up next week and react.”
St Johnstone (3-4-3): Parish; Cleary, Gordon, McCart; Sang, Hallberg (Gilmour 73), Davidson, Gallacher; Middleton (Bair 87), Hendry (Ciftci 78), Crawford (Butterfield 78).
Hearts (3-4-3): Stewart; Sibbick, Souttar, Kingsley; Atkinson, Devlin (Halliday 65), Haring, Cochrane (Mackay-Steven 65); Ginnelly (Woodburn 65), Simms, McKay.
Referee: Grant Irvine.