Hearts’ unbeaten start to 2020 came crashing to an end as a 2-3 loss to Kilmarnock sent them back to the foot of the Scottish Premiership table. Killie celebrated a second consecutive win in the league, with their victory last weekend against Ross County ending a nine-match winless run, indicating they may have turned a corner in their form.
The game began at a high tempo, with Hearts starting the better of the two sides. Steven Naismith looked dangerous as he managed to find space between the opposition midfield and defence, dropping deep to build attacks for the Jambos. Midfielder Marcel Langer made his debut for the home side as they had the better of the opening exchanges, but failed to create any clear-cut chances.
However, Hearts were made to pay when Stuart Findlay headed Kilmarnock into the lead in the 24th minute. This came after some smart play by Eamonn Brophy drew a save from loanee keeper Joel Pereira. Chris Burke delivered a brilliant in-swinging ball from the resulting corner, and Findlay got on the end of a near-post flick to open the scoring.
With their side unbeaten in four league games, and the news that the club is to become fan-owned, Hearts supporters were in good spirits. However, their frustration was audible after seeing their side concede. Hearts pressed high up the pitch, as has been their style since Daniel Stendel took charge in December, but created painfully little. For Kilmarnock, in-form striker Nicke Kabamba was the focal point in attack and looked dangerous all evening.
Kilmarnock’s second goal came after 38 minutes when Burke latched on to a long pass before beautifully lifting the ball over the onrushing Pereira to see it drop into the net. Hearts fans must be sick of the sight of him, as he marked his third goal against them this season.
In the remainder of the half Sean Clare and the lively Lewis Moore linked up well down the right. Nonetheless, any attempts to forge a chance were shut down, largely due to a fine performance at the back by Findlay.
The second half couldn’t have started worse for the Edinburgh side as Brophy lashed home a powerful effort from just inside the area, although it appeared that Pereira in the Hearts goal should have done much better. Three goals up, it seemed the Ayrshire side would be securing their first away league win since their previous visit to Tynecastle in October.
Victory for Kilmarnock never looked in danger as Hearts became increasingly frustrated. They found joy down the flanks repeatedly with their fullbacks, but the visitors were resolute whenever the ball went central.
With just over ten minutes remaining, Hearts were given not one but two lifelines as Kilmarnock keeper Laurentiu Branescu brought down substitute Conor Washington inside the area, receiving a booking. Clare converted the subsequent spot kick cooly into the right corner of the net, his confidence high after his late equaliser against St Johnstone on Saturday. As he attempted to retrieve the ball from the net, Branescu threw it away, a rash decision that earned him a second yellow card and left his team to play with ten men for the remainder of the match.
Hearts piled men forward, and in the final minute Craig Halkett, now playing as a striker, volleyed into the net to set up an exciting finale. Naismith dropped into a deeper role, launching speculative balls forward in the hope of a lucky bounce or ricochet.
Despite this, Kilmarnock’s substitute keeper Jan Koprivec had little more than a few routine saves to make as they closed out the match.
After losing his first five league games, Killie manager Alex Dyer can now celebrate back-to-back wins. Speaking about how they prepared for the game, he said “we knew they pressed well up the pitch… and we worked on (our game-plan) the last couple of days”. The confidence they took from their previous win was clear to see.
Conversely, Stendel was unhappy with the manner of the defeat, saying, “for me it was not how we want to play”, and was critical of the lack of cutting edge in the final third and persistent defensive frailties.
With Hearts returning to the bottom of the table, things don’t get easier for Stendel’s men as they have a trip to Celtic Park in their next league game. For Kilmarnock and Dyer, whilst they won’t be getting carried away with themselves, they will be delighted to have ended their terrible run of form, leaving them one point behind sixth-placed Hibernian before their home game against Rangers.
Image rights: Paul Henery via Wikimedia Commons