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Rangers main­tain the pres­sure at the top as Hearts are mauled in five-star Ibrox show

Scottish Daily Mail - - Football -

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

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