Little Christmas sparkle but Hearts content with another clean sheet

Edinburgh derbies inevitably produce controversy. Perhaps it was the festive spirit at play but Hearts received something of a gift when Hibs were denied a clear goal after only seven minutes at Tynecastle Park last night. Not that they will complain, for they are now unbeaten in their last eight matches and haven't lost a goal in five.

Thursday, 28th December 2017, 5:30 am
Hearts striker Esmael Goncalves is challenged by Hibs defender Darren McGregor

Hibs haven’t suffered defeat in nine games against their Capital rivals dating back to August 2014. This goalless draw certainly lacked plenty Christmas sparkle. Nonetheless, there was a sense at full-time that neither team was overly unhappy with the result. Hearts survived some concerted pressure in the second half and might have had two penalties for handball during the closing period.

As is becoming their trademark these days, they were determined to see the game out and take at a point minimum. Hibs tried to force the issue but couldn’t fashion many clear openings. They naturally bemoaned the goal which wasn’t awarded at full-time, with manager Neil Lennon asking how none of the officials could have seen the ball cross the line.

Martin Boyle’s low cross was struck by Oli Shaw and the ball hit the underside of the crossbar. It bounced down and landed over the goal-line, but neither referee Steven McLean or his assistant Sean Carr had a view clear enough to award the goal. Hearts manager Craig Levein admitted his team had got away with one, although he also reference the potential penalties.

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The icy air enveloping Gorgie last night made conditions less than favourable for those who enjoy attractive football. That said, Hearts’ recent unbeaten run had been built on solidity and resilience rather than beauty, and their supporters weren’t complaining having not seen their team beaten in seven games.

What the next assignment was to end a three-year hoodoo against their greatest rivals. Losing an Edinburgh derby had become an alien concept for Hibs after eight games without defeat against Hearts. That served as the primary motivation for both sides last night - the visitors looking to continue their dominance of this fixture while the home team tried to settle a score.

It all made for an intriguing confrontation two days after Christmas under the Tynecastle Park lights. The atmosphere tingled during a frenzied start from both sides and Hearts could only lament an early opportunity which Jamie Walker sent over the Hibs crossbar. Then came a moment of huge controversy with only seven minutes played.

Hibs attacked down the right through the pacy Boyle and his low cross found teenage forward Shaw. His first-time shot struck the underside of the crossbar and bounced down. Referee McLean waved play on but television replays showed the ball did cross the goal-line. The visitors were outraged at being denied a potentially priceless early lead. Manager Neil Lennon vented his anger in the technical area, causing McLean to take him aside and appeal for calmness.

That was a pretty forlorn exercise inside a fervid Tynecastle. Every challenge brought appeals for action from the officials, with no quarter asked or given by two teams with European aspirations. Hibs’ tactic was to drop balls in behind the Hearts defence to utilise the speed of Boyle and Shaw but they were caught offside almost every time.

There was no denying Hibs were the better side during the opening 45 minutes but Hearts would have been content that the scoreline remained goalless. They would have known, and been reminded by manager Craig Levein, that they required to raise their game somewhat. Levein moved Kyle Lafferty from an unorthodox wide-right role into the central attacking position for the second half. An enforced change shortly after the restart saw Aaron Hughes replace Connor Randall at right-back, with the on-loan Liverpool man hirpling from the field.

Hearts then fashioned their best opening so far. Jamie Walker scampered away from Efe Ambrose down the left and his low, deflected cross was scuffed goalwards by Lafferty. The home support were willing the ball into the net but it trickled the wrong side of the far post. Then came vehement claims for a penalty from the Hearts camp as Marvin Bartley tussled with Walker and appeared to use an arm unintentionally. Referee McLean allowed play to continue.

Boyle sent two attempts at the Hearts goal from 20 yards, which were both narrowly off target. The game was opening up entering the final 20 minutes as it became clear that one goal would probably settle it. The Hibs manager Neil Lennon introduced striker Simon Murray, quickly followed by winger Brandon Barker, in the hope of seizing the initiative. Both substitutes certainly imbued the Easter Road side with fresh legs in the final third. Hearts began to look tired on the heavy, slippery surface, and found themselves forced back into their own half with Hibs probing. They visitors weren’t creating much in the way of clear chances – largely because the Hearts captain Christophe Berra intervened time and time again to block and clear – but their probing was relentless as the 80-minute mark arrived.

When maroon shirts did venture forward, Goncalves continued to be a frustrating figure up front. There was also the difficulty of retaining possession in midfield, where Ross Callachan was introduced for the closing seven minutes. He replaced the industrious David Milinkovic and provided much needed energy in the centre of the pitch.

With five mintues left, this encounter was still in the balance. Both teams were increasingly concerned with not losing as opposed to winning. Hibs were heading for a ninth consecutive Capital derby without defeat, whilst their opponents wanted to extend their unbeaten run in recent weeks to eight matches. There was also that small matter of a fifth consecutive clean sheet which would have been near the forefront of Levein’s mind as the seconds ticked away.

Barker was forced off injured following a crunching tackle by John Souttar, which left the winger grounded. Deivydas Matulevicius came on to take his place. Walker was next to go down and he signalled for a substitution in the 88th minute but was left on the field by his management team. Five minutes of additional time were signalled by the fourth official and there was, unsurprisngly, a fair amount of tension in the night air around Gorgie. Hearts again claimed for a penalty when a free-kick was hoisted into the Hibs box and appeared to bounce up and strike an arm.

The evening ended in stalemate, however. The draw was celebrated by the travelling fans, clearly delighted at prolonging their unbeaten derby run. They might have left with three points but, for Hearts, there was the consolation of another clean sheet and that eight-game unbeaten sequence.