The race for the Scottish Premier League title is going right down to the wire. Rangers set up the most intriguing end-game of any championship race in Europe yesterday when they craved out a crucial success at Tynecastle which leaves them locked with Celtic at the top on points and goal difference.
The only thing that separates the Old Firm pair is that Rangers have scored one more goal than the champions and, if the title cannot be determined on the first two factors, that slender margin will decide a whole season's work.
Ronald de Boer inspired Rangers to a hard-earned victory with a fine diving header that broke the deadlock after his team had missed a penalty. The Dutchman then set up the second goal for Peter Lovenkrands that could prove so important in six days' time.
Rangers now feel as if the prize if theirs. They could not have hand-picked a better side for the last game, facing Dunfermline at home, a side who have not won a League game against Rangers in 31 years.
Celtic, in contrast, go to Kilmarnock, whose stuffiness has seen both the championship contenders drop points at Rugby Park this season. On top of that, there is the small matter of a Uefa Cup final for Martin O'Neill's side to recover from.
"This was a really important match for us and now we've got home advantage next week, then perhaps the pendulum has swung to us," the Rangers manager Alex McLeish said. "Just to win here was pleasing, but to get the two goals was a bonus. I thought when Shota Arveladze missed that penalty, that it was not going to be our season, but De Boer conjured up a fantastic goal."
Rangers knew that this was never going to be like the goal feast they enjoyed a week earlier in dismantling Kilmarnock. Hearts had secured their place in the Uefa Cup and sought to replicate their success against Celtic on this pitch just four weeks earlier, an act that did so much to undermine Celtic's cause.
There were few chances for McLeish's side in the first-half, though Mikel Arteta did scuff the top of the bar with one early shot. Hearts simply dug in and soaked up the pressure but they finally produced a threat of their own after half an hour when Steven Boyack's raking shot flew wide of the post.
Three minutes before the interval came the pivotal moment of the contest. Mark de Vries, Hearts' robust target man, wriggled clear and clipped a left-foot shot that was netbound until Stefan Klos superbly touched it wide.
Klos made another save from the Dutch striker just after the break but that was eclipsed by his counterpart, Teuvo Moilanen, who conjured up a remarkable penalty save in the 63rd minute after De Vries had handled Arveladze's corner. The Georgian took the penalty, but Moilanen got down to push it against the post.
Hearts' joy, though, was short-lived. Arveladze found space on the right just a couple of minutes later to deliver a fine cross for De Boer to bullet a header past the goalkeeper – and Rangers sensed their destiny.
Another break by De Boer 12 minutes after that saw the Dutchman reach the line and pull the ball back for Lovenkrands to steer a left-foot shot past Moilanen and spark scenes of joy amid the travelling support.
Heart of Midlothian(4-4-2): Moilanen; Maybury, Pressley (Simmons, 74), Webster, Neilson; Boyack, Severin, MacFarlane, Valois (Kirk, 77); De Vries, Weir (McKenna, 63). Substitutes not used: McKenzie (gk), Mahé.
Rangers (4-3-3): Klos; Ricksen, Moore, Amoruso, Numan; Hughes, Ferguson, Arteta (Lovenkrands, 46); De Boer, Mols (Thompson, 62), Arveladze. Substitutes not used: McGregor (gk), Malcolm, Caniggia.
Referee: H Dallas.
Bookings: Hearts: Webster, MacFarlane; Rangers: Amoruso, Mols.
Man of the match: De Boer.
* Ivano Bonetti, the former Dundee manager, is taking legal action against the club over the deal which brought the striker Fabian Caballero to Tayside. The Italian, who left Dens Park last summer, claims he loaned Dundee £800,000 to buy the forward from Paraguay's Sol de America.Reuse content