Hearts 1-2 Rangers
It would be fair to say that Hearts didn't exactly have the most idyllic of preparations for this match. A 4-0 hammering in Zagreb last Thursday that effectively ended their European campaign with summer still with us came just three days after losing their SPL opener at Tannadice, and all of this was going on amid rumours in the background that all is not well between the manager and his bosses in Lithuania.
However despite all of this and the resulting pessimistic mood among most Hearts supporters, I always felt that this afternoon's match was extremely winnable.
Why? Well, why not? Yes we took a real battering in Europe, but we're hardly the only Scottish club being made to look a bit silly in a continental context at the moment are we? All this did was further show up Scotland's domestic game for what it is right now.....and this afternoon's game was between two teams from that very same, very poor league, one in which any of the participating sides are capable of beating any of the others.
In the end it turned out to be a match that's pretty typical of Tynecastle tussles between these two sides. The overall standard of football was not the highest, with long, scrappy exchanges winning the day over any genuine artistry, but that wasn't to say that the game wasn't entertaining - there was certainly enough goalmouth action and controversy to keep the non-purists happy!
Hearts were in control of proceedings for most of the match, aided by an early red card for Rangers' Kevin Thomson for an outrageous lunging challenge on Ian Black, and in all honesty really should have recorded a comfortable victory this afternoon. For long spells with the score at 1-0 they dictated the play, and also created quite a few clear cut chances to put the match to bed. Sadly though, in front of goal at least, it really just was 'one of THOSE days' for the home side.
The match started as it meant to go on with a series of meaty challenges flying around. Referee Craig Thomson, definitely one of the better refs in our game, didn't make life particularly easy for himself early on when he failed to award a foul against Rangers for a clear lunge at Suso from behind in the centre of the park. This resulted in the little Spaniard looking for immediate retribution, and he and Kenny Miller ended up having a needless tussle on the touchline after Suso had challenged the Rangers striker off the field. Both players ended up with an early booking, but this could have been avoided if the initial foul by Miller had been correctly identified. Maybe I'm being petty....
Play raged scrappily from end to end thereafter, but once Kevin Thomson was dismissed for his reckless lunge on Black, the game took on a different complexion after both sides had had time to re-adjust. The pace relented slightly and there was more of a patient build up adopted by Hearts, who were by this time enjoying the lion's share of possession.
Hearts came agonisingly close to taking the lead after 20 minutes when Suso, taking advantage of some shocking Rangers defending (a theme throughout), cut in from the right wing, switched onto his left foot and cracked a shot that came back off the corner of the bar and post. Desperately unlucky.
The home side only had a few minutes to wait for their goal, though. On the half-hour mark, Juho Makela-lookalike (and play-alike!) got the better of the hopeless Bougherra and played a neat one-two with Christian Nade. Just as he was challenged by two Rangers defenders he got a shot at goal away, but it looked to be too close to Allan MacGregor's body to be a serious threat....until the 'keeper made a complete hash of his attempt to save and let it squirm through him. 1-0 Hearts.
Hearts continued to be the likelier side and immediately they looked to press home their ascendancy by replacing the ineffective Nade with Gary Glen.
As the half drew to a close Rangers had their obligatory claims for a penalty when Miller fell awkwardly next to Jose Goncalves, but in reality all the defender had done was stand his ground - it would therefore have been a soft penalty even by Rangers' standards.
Half time 1-0
Witteveen had the chance to really make himself popular just after the restart when he latched onto Balogh's long ball and ended up one on one with MacGregor. Sadly the Austrian's painful lack of pace presented itself rather clearly to us all, and in the end it all got rather messy, with Bougherra eventually putting it behind for a corner.
Hearts almost made the points safe a few minutes later when Goncalves got his head to Suso's corner, but MacGregor reacted brilliantly to get a hand to the ball, which spun agonisingly off the corner of the bar and post once again to keep Rangers' interest in the match alive.
Rangers then gave an indication that they could be ready to mount a challenge in this match after all, when veteran Davie Weir got on the end of Davis' cross to power a header just wide.
The visitors were now beginning to make their mark on the match at long last, although quite what was happening to the Hearts midfield during this spell was anyone's guess - they simply appeared to have run out of steam too early, which is a tad concerning given that their opponents were a midfielder down.
Hearts looked to have a cast-iron shout for a penalty turned down when Ruben Palazuelos was pushed in the back with two hands by McCulloch following another Suso corner, but the referee was having none of it.
Fitting then, that McCulloch would be the man to level things up at the other end with Rangers' next attack. A free-kick from the Rangers right was whipped in dangerously and McCulloch got the slightest of glances to the ball with his head to guide it behind Balogh and into the corner of the Hearts net. 1-1 with half an hour to go.
Rangers were at this stage enjoying more possession, but Hearts still looked the more likely side to score whenever they regained the ball. Suso came very close to putting his side back in front when getting on the end of a great deep cross by Obua, but his net-bound volley was blocked by a desperate last-gasp challenge.
Then just as injury-time was approaching, Suso once again came close to winning it for Hearts, but MacGregor this time came to Rangers' rescue.
Just as though it looked likely to end in a disappointing 1-1 draw for Hearts, things got worse. A long ball to Kris Boyd, who had just come on as a substitute, saw the striker clearly backing into his marker to allow the ball to continue its course, which referee Thomson allowed to go. Naismith then took the ball in his stride and went down under a challenge from Bouzid and this time the referee wasn't prepared to wave 'play on', which didn't really come as a huge surprise to those of us familiar with Scottish football! Our opponents today are no strangers to injury time penalties when they're up against it and this was yet another in a long list of such occurrences, and Boyd took full advantage by making an expert job of the penalty kick. As for the incident itself, I'd like to see it again on TV to see if it actually was a fair tackle or not by Bouzid, but there's no doubt in my mind that Boyd had committed a foul prior to it.
So....in the end very bitter result indeed to take from a Hearts point of view for several reasons, but you do have to give Rangers credit for the way they came back into things in the second half. With their considerable limitations in a technical sense, their ten men grafted hard out there and showed at least a couple of those in maroon what it means to work for a result, which will hopefully be taken on board by those who need to the most. Csaba should know who they are.
This has been a very bad start to Hearts' season, but for long spells this afternoon they played quite well today, albeit against poor opposition. We just have to hope that Csaba still has the motivation to focus on those for the weeks and months ahead, otherwise this could be an exceptionally long season.