NO FLAGGING INTITLE BATTLE
Rangers maintain the pressure at the top as Hearts are mauled in five-star Ibrox show
WITH five minutes to play, Rangers could see the target in sight. Hearts had run up the white flag of surrender and an opportunity to leapfrog Celtic at the summit of the Scottish Premiership beckoned.
They fell short in the final few yards. A ruthless general by nature, Steven Gerrard would rather his side had marched on to another two goals which would have seen them move ahead of Neil Lennon’s men on goal difference.
More than anyone, however, the ex-Liverpool skipper appreciates that a league campaign is a marathon rather than a sprint. After a testing Europa League trip to Rotterdam last Thursday, a final tally of five goals could hardly be construed as failure.
Resting Ryan Jack ahead of Wednesday’s league trip to Aberdeen, the Rangers manager watched Alfredo Morelos take his tally to a remarkable 25 goals before Christmas.
The second came before half-time from Ryan Kent and that cushion allowed the ex-England captain to remove his two crown jewels from the fray with 20 minutes to play. What the score might have finished if they had stayed on is anyone’s guess.
Tynecastle skipper Christophe Berra inflicted friendly fire on his own comrades with an own goal before a late double for sub Greg Stewart moved Rangers to within a goal of Celtic ahead of Pittodrie in midweek and next Sunday’s Betfred Cup Final.
This was another bad day for Hearts in Glasgow. The statistics are alarming, two wins in their last 15 and one in their last seven. Tenth in the Premiership, only goals scored and goal difference keeps them above St Mirren and St Johnstone respectively. Those stats reflect a team lurching dangerously close to crisis.
Owner Ann Budge hopes to land ex-Barnsley boss Daniel Stendel before Wednesday’s must-win home clash with Livingston, but attracting talented managers to Scottish football is never straightforward and, if the German watched this, it’s unlikely to have made the job any more appealing. The failure to attract the No1 target after a five-week search would only add to the impression of Hearts — fairly or otherwise — as a rudderless club on and off the pitch.
‘It’s very important the players, staff, myself and supporters all stick together,’ said interim boss Austin MacPhee afterwards.
‘Two weeks ago, we watched a fantastic performance against St Mirren. We were on the front foot, scored five goals, hadn’t won at home in seven months. So we need to make sure that’s the memory going into Wednesday night against Livingston, rather than today at Ibrox.’
It’s remarkable to ponder now that Hearts were actually the last team to take points from Gerrard’s team in the league.
The loss of influential defender Michael Smith to a pre-match illness was partially offset by the return of Craig Halkett after seven weeks on the sidelines.
Yet a 3-5-2 formation featuring Aaron Hickey at left centre-back and Jamie Brandon and Aidan White in wing-back roles did nothing to stem the haemorrhaging of goals. In two games against Rangers, they’ve now lost eight without response. Injuries were the soundtrack to Craig Levein’s demise, exposing the limitations of those players waiting in the wings. So it was once more here.
MacPhee’s ability came under scrutiny when the team in maroon fell to a slightly shambolic defeat to Rangers in last month’s Betfred Cup semi-final.
There was no Craig Wighton coming in from left field this time, but the selection of Brandon to cover the pace and crossing of Kent and Borna Barisic on the right flank still looked a risky call. One which took 11 minutes to backfire. Without the ball, Hearts reverted to five players in defence. The suspicion is they could have played ten and it wouldn’t have stopped Morelos.
In a two-on-two scenario on his side of the pitch, Brandon dropped inside, leaving Barisic the time and space to hang a cross into the box. We all know what came next. The scorer of two outstanding headers in Rotterdam against Feyenoord, the Colombian outjumped Hickey easily to bullet a downward header into the net past Joel Pereira.
The improvement in Morelos is such now that missed chances are met with something approaching astonishment. He fluffed a chance to double his tally after 30 minutes, a James Tavernier cross from the right touchline picking out the unmarked striker. Fluffing the first opportunity to make contact, a second attempt on the turn was blocked by Pereira.
Hearts breathed again. But, with their midfield unable to get or keep the ball, a second goal for the hosts duly arrived in 37 minutes.
Handed only his second Ibrox start since Rangers’ sole league defeat, to Celtic in September, Joe Aribo replaced Sheyi Ojo on the right side of an attacking three. A key role in the second Rangers goal before half-time was part of a fine display unlikely to do the English-born Nigerian midfielder’s confidence any harm. Finding space between Hearts pair White and Hickey, Aribo cut the ball into the path of Kent to slot home.
An own goal from Berra after 64 minutes summed up Hearts’ day, the captain sliding in to block a driven Tavernier cutback from the byeline and prodding the ball into his own net.
The introduction of Stewart and Jermain Defoe for Morelos and Kent reflected Rangers’ superiority but did nothing to blunt their edge as Stewart claimed two late goals.
The capitulation of Hearts in those dying minutes was a sight to behold, their lack of confidence and character as worrying as any lack of technical ability.
With ten minutes to play, sub Ojo dispossessed an injured Hickey on the byeline and cut the ball into the middle for Stewart — only on the field seven minutes — to turn the fourth goal into the net. There was time for one more, after more comically bad attempts by Hearts to keep the back door shut.
With five minutes left, Defoe’s shot was blocked by Pereira, the ball spinning up for Stewart to head goalwards. The keeper spilled the ball over the line before Defoe could get there to make sure. RANGERS (4-3-3): McGregor 6; Tavernier 7, Helander 7, Goldson 7, Barisic 7; Davis 7, Arfield 6, Kamara 6 (Stewart 72); Aribo 7, Kent 7 (Ojo 67), Morelos 8 (Defoe 67). Subs not used: Foderingham, Jack, Flanagan, Katic. Booked: Helander, Aribo. HEARTS (3-5-2): Pereira 4; Halkett 4, Berra 4, Hickey 4; Brandon 4, White 4 (Mulraney 72), Whelan 5, Bozanic 4, Walker 4 (Damour 70); Naismith 5, Ikpeazu 5 (Meshino 70). Subs not used: Zlamal, Clare, MacLean, Irving. Booked: Ikpeazu, Berra. Man of the match: Alfredo Morelos. Referee: Don Robertson. Attendance: 49,811
Goal glut: Morelos powers home Rangers’ first effort and (inset, left to right) Kent, Berra’s own goal and Stewart add to the emphatic scoreline