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Jim Jefferies 2nd <-auth Stephen Halliday auth-> Brian Winter
[K Lafferty 4]
5 of 009 -----L SPL A

Early Kyle Lafferty goal enough to subdue Hearts

Published Date: 03 February 2011
HEARTS headed back along the M8 empty-handed once more last night, their prospects of sustaining an interest in the championship chase surely holed below the waterline after suffering defeat at the home of the champions.
In contrast to their 4-0 hammering against Celtic the previous week, this narrow loss to Rangers saw them at least give a respectable account of themselves. After falling behind in the opening exchanges to a fine Kyle Lafferty goal, Jim Jefferies' side battled their way back into an often scrappy affair to ensure a fraught evening for their hosts.

This was a game Walter Smith's men would feel they simply had to win in response to impressive pace currently being set by Celtic. Rangers now trail their great rivals by five points but with two games in hand. For Hearts, now 10 points behind Celtic, the focus must return to consolidating their grip on third place.

Just as they had on their visit to Celtic Park seven days earlier, Hearts were undone by the loss of an early goal. Lafferty's fourth- minute strike would immediately have the travelling support fearing another heavy defeat in Glasgow.

For Rangers, it was the perfect start to an evening which saw them operating under considerable pressure to keep Celtic within reach at the top of the table. Smith employed the same 4-5-1 formation which had performed smartly enough at Tynecastle 10 days previously but had been unable to prevent Hearts grabbing the victory which had created so much talk of a potential three-horse title race.

Nikica Jelavic's unavailability because of a groin injury saw Lafferty handed the lone striking role and he responded by scoring his sixth goal of the season in some style.

The big Ulsterman initiated the move with a pass to find Steven Whittaker on the right. The full-back's cross picked out Lafferty's run into the penalty area, Hearts keeper Marian Kello left helpless as a sweetly struck first time volley from around 10 yards beat him low to his right.

With Vladimir Weiss looking lively and threatening in a role which saw him given licence to cut in from the left, Rangers warmed to their task as they looked to capitalise on the early breakthrough. Lee McCulloch headed wide from a Madjid Bougherra cross with Hearts looking uncertain at the back, where Jefferies had switched to a three-man central defence.

Adrian Mrowiec, sweeping behind Ismael Bouzid and Marius Zaliukas, made a crucial intervention to deny Steven Davis a clear chance of doubling Rangers' lead.

The visitors gradually settled, however, while Rangers were forced into a re-organisation when McCulloch limped off in the 21st minute. It meant an earlier than planned introduction to the action for El Hadji Diouf, the deadline-day signing receiving a rapturous welcome from the home support and a predictably hostile one from the Hearts fans.

Before Diouf had time to make his presence felt, Hearts came close to an equaliser. Craig Thomson floated in a free-kick from the right which Zaliukas rose to meet with a looping header from the edge of the penalty area. The ball looked certain to dip under Allan McGregor's crossbar but the Rangers goalkeeper made a tremendous one-handed save to touch it over.

It did not take Diouf long to find himself in the heat of battle, but he was sinned against rather than the sinner when Zaliukas picked up the first booking of the night for a cynical foul on the Senegalese player. Diouf quickly lived up to his reputation, though, when he was extremely fortunate to escape a caution himself from referee Brian Winter. After failing to have a free-kick awarded in his favour after losing possession to Zaliukas, an incensed Diouf charged after the Hearts captain and halted him with a blatant retaliatory foul.

Having overcome such a dreadful start to the match, Hearts had firmly forced their way back into it, causing several anxious moments for a Rangers defence in which Sasa Papac was struggling to cope with Thomson's direct running on the right of the visitors' five-man midfield. McGregor was relieved to see one low cross from Thomson flash across his six-yard box without Stephen Elliott being able to apply a finishing touch.

There would be concern for Jefferies, though, at the rapid rate his team were collecting yellow cards. Suso Santana, Ian Black and Eggert Jonsson all followed Zaliukas into the book before half-time. Black caused particular outrage among the home support with his offence, a late challenge on Diouf which some referees might have interpreted as a red-card offence.

Black did not reappear for the second-half, Jefferies replacing him with Ryan Stevenson as he perhaps sensed the danger of the combative midfield player earning a dismissal.

Rangers came close to increasing their lead four minutes after the restart. Bougherra made one of his trademark charges out of defence, playing a neat exchange of passes with Davis which allowed him to burst clear on the right of the penalty area. The Algerian's powerful right-foot shot from a tight angle was on target but Kello reacted well to divert the ball behind for a corner.

The game remained very much in the balance and slack play from Diouf presented Hearts with a promising opening in the 57th minute.

Suso Santana, though, lacked the composure to make it count, failing to find Elliott with a pass which was cut out by Bougherra.

Diouf, initially deployed on the right of midfield before being pushed up front alongside Lafferty, looked almost too keen to make a positive impact. He did pick out Maurice Edu with one insightful pass, the American miscuing horribly from 14 yards out, but then missed a glorious chance to open his Rangers account. A dreadful attempted passback from Zaliukas left Diouf with a clear run at goal but he gave Bouzid time to step in and snuff out the danger.

Davis had the ball in the net for Rangers in stoppage time but the effort was ruled out for offside. The final whistle came as a relief for Smith's players who had ground out a precious win with very little aesthetic merit.

Rangers: McGregor, Whittaker, Bougherra, Weir, Papac, McCulloch (Diouf 20), Davis, Edu, Ness, Weiss (Naismith 71), Lafferty. Subs Not Used: Alexander, Fleck, Foster, Healy, Bartley.

Hearts: Kello, C Thomson, Jonsson, Zaliukas, Palazuelos, Mrowiec, Santana (Driver 72), Black (Stevenson 46), Skacel (Glen 80), Elliott, Bouzid. Subs Not Used: MacDonald, Templeton, J Thomson, Obua.

Taken from the Scotsman

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