Hearts stunned Rangers for the second time this season to knock them out of the Scottish Cup in a gritty encounter at Tynecastle.
Rangers, fresh from their impressive away victory to Braga in the Europa League on Thursday evening, looked a tired and predictable outfit, and Hearts were undoubtedly the better of the two teams in what turned out to be a memorable game for Daniel Stendel’s men.
Oliver Bozanic capitalised on a costly defensive mix up in the 57th minute to fire the home side ahead, and despite Rangers having a number of chances towards the end of the game, Steven Gerrard will know that his team were simply not good enough to merit anything other than a loss at Tynecastle.
Prior to kick-off it was the Rangers fans who were making their presence the most felt. The mixture of bitterly cold weather and poor form meant that there were many empty seats in the home end.
Indeed, given the importance of the game it could easily be said that the atmosphere inside Tynecastle was rather tepid for the opening minutes, but with Rangers lacking any bite up front after the suspension of Alfredo Morelos due to disciplinary reasons, Hearts gradually grew into the game.
The majority of the first half was a scrappy affair and for the most part consisted of both teams trying to win the loose ball, especially as the heavy rain made passing the ball quickly along the floor increasingly difficult as the pitch became more and more torn-up.
Hearts defender John Souttar pulled up after sixteen minutes in what has since been confirmed as a season-ending Achilles injury, meaning that victory came at quite a cost for the home side as they seek to survive relegation.
There were very few clear-cut chances in the opening 45 minutes, but suddenly just before half-time the game burst into action.
Hearts skipper Steven Naismith (who was booed throughout by the Rangers fans) was headed towards goal when the ball appeared to be taken away from him by the straggling arm of Rangers defender, George Edmundson. The referee failed to see this and awarded a corner to the home team despite the barrage of complaints levied at him by the Tynecastle faithful.
From the resulting corner Loic Damour deflected the ball into the back of the net with both of his hands and referee Steven McLean initially gave the goal, triggering a huge set of protests from Rangers players and fans alike.
After consulting his officials McLean changed his mind and disallowed the goal, but in doing so failed to show Damour a second yellow card for the undeniable handball, provoking lots of animation on the touchline as the players headed towards the tunnel at half-time.
Hearts came out all guns blazing in the second half and it was they, not Rangers, who appeared the more likely to score.
Damour’s volley looked to be headed goal bound, and were it not for Edmundson’s brilliant block then the Frenchman’s effort would have rippled the back of the net.
Nonetheless, Hearts found the breakthrough after 57 minutes after Lewis Moore pressured the Rangers’ backline when goalkeeper Allan McGregor committed himself, sliding the ball across the goal to leave Bozanic with a half-open net to slot Hearts ahead.
The goal would have given immense happiness to Stendel, who puts a lot of emphasis on high pressing and work-rate.
Rangers grew into the game as the clock ran down, and centre back Edmundson must be ruing the two almost identical chances he missed to equalise with little time to go.
Naismith looked to have sealed progression to the semi-finals for Hearts with only a handful of minutes left, but his prodded effort landed just wide of the far post.
Tynecastle erupted after the final whistle as Hearts remained unbeaten in their three home games against Rangers this season.
Defender Clevid Dikamona was rightfully awarded Man of the Match after a brilliant defensive display that saw him cut out and block many Rangers’ attacks.
The inconsistency of performances for Steven Gerrard’s men will undoubtedly be of concern for Rangers fans, and after the game Gerrard himself stated that he “didn’t recognise anything” from his team’s performance against Braga on Thursday evening.
For Hearts this was the perfect result ahead of the Edinburgh derby on Tuesday night, where Stendel will hope to gain some points in the battle to survive relegation.
Image Rights: Sam Barrett