Peter Lovenkrands' rich vein of form damaged Heart of Midlothian's title ambitions yesterday, yet the real beneficiaries of the Rangers forward's fifth goal in three games could be Celtic.
The Edinburgh side's defeat at Ibrox yesterday could see Celtic open the gap at the top of the Scottish Premier League to six points if they win at Inverness Caledonian Thistle today.
For Hearts, though, the damage was self-inflicted as Saulius Mikoliunas was sent off near the end to earn a second red card against Rangers in nine months. A far greater worry for Graham Rix, who has now won only one of five games since taking charge, is that his title contenders are now a shadow of the unit which George Burley left him.
They had a chance to open up a 17-point gap over Rangers who, for all their fine play, remain in fourth place. The prospect of Villarreal coming to Ibrox in the Champions' League in late February will have to keep them warm during the domestic winter.
However, Alex McLeish's side clearly drew inspiration from that prospect as they engaged Hearts in a frenetic first half in a far more tigerish fashion than in recent months. Perhaps it was the desire to atone for a defeat at Tynecastle in September and Hamed Namouchi's header from Robert Malcolm's 21st-minute free-kick almost beat Craig Gordon until the Scotland goalkeeper produced a touch-over.
Six minutes later, Marvin Andrews ought to have broken the deadlock, but the centre-back produced the miss of the season. Hearts offered a threat on the counterattack and while Roman Bednar squandered his own good work, Deividas Cesnauskis was guilty of sheer greed as he went alone instead of finding Bednar or Paul Hartley. Ten minutes before the interval, Lovenkrands put Rangers ahead. Malcolm again delivered another testing free-kick which broke to Lovenkrands and the Dane drilled his shot past Gordon from a tight angle.
The bad blood that was coursing between the sides spilled over as they left the pitch at half-time, with Lovenkrands and Andy Webster involved in a row which then became a mêlée en route to the tunnel.
The second period was characterised by fierce Rangers pressure, with Gordon pawing away a header from Namouchi and then Lovenkrands placing a shot and a header over the bar. A nagging doubt must have surfaced with McLeish that his winger's craft would be undone by the profligacy of others. Indeed, when Hearts replace the toiling Lithuanians, Edgaras Jankauskas and Cesnauskis, and brought on Mikoliunas and Calum Elliot, Rix's side acquired a threat.
When Bednar's skill set up Rudi Skacel, it required a brave save from Ronald Waterreus at the midfielder's feet. Hearts had begun to compete with far greater intensity but Mikoliunas took that too far. Six minutes from the end, his rash tackle on Barry Ferguson was punished with a red card.Reuse content