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Jim Jefferies 2nd <-auth Hugh Macdonald auth-> Brian Winter
[K Lafferty 4]
9 of 009 -----L SPL A

Lafferty strike ends Hearts’ brief title tilt

Hugh Macdonald Chief Sportswriter at Ibrox

3 Feb 2011

Diouf makes his debut and Hearts leave Glasgow pointless for the second time in a week as title race takes shape in familiar fashion

The championship is now a two-horse race. Hearts declared themselves non-runners last night as they slipped to their second defeat in Glasgow in a week.

The manner of the loss at Ibrox was in stark contrast to the capitulation at Celtic Park but the result was similar in the number of points gained by the Edinburgh side and its effect on their standing as contenders for the title.

A goal by Kyle Lafferty after four minutes was enough to send Jim Jefferies’ side back along the M8 without a point and with their sights now lowered to the third place slot. Rangers were never fully convincing but Allan McGregor can reflect on a night when he had only one save to make. Hearts had no focal point to their attacks and their attacks caused only mild anxiety.

The champions thus claw back three points on Celtic, leaving them five points behind with two games in hand. The battle lines have thus been drawn again between the two Glasgow clubs and El Hadji Diouf will be a colourful, controversial addition to the fray.

The Senegalese forward replaced the injured Lee McCulloch after 20 minutes and was energetic throughout, occasionally thrust into the limelight as a victim of fouls and an occasional threat in front of goal. His contribution to a Rangers challenge for the Clydesdale Bank Premier League will be assessed over the next three months but Diouf will devour newsprint as he alternates between public enemy and the hero of the Ibrox support.

Hearts, though, could not blame the Blackburn Rovers forward for their downfall last night. Their title pretensions suffered a blow after just four minutes as Rangers’ first attack yielded a goal. Steven Whittaker’s deep cross was smartly side-footed home by Lafferty from 12 yards. It was the only significant assault on the Hearts goal in the first half, but there was to be no way back for the Gorgie side.

Rangers, with Vladimir Weiss sprightly if ultimately innocuous, thereafter forced the early pace, but their efforts and the introduction of Diouf merely seemed to bring Hearts out of their slumber. Slowly Jim Jefferies’ side forced a way back into the game with a header from Marius Zaliukas from a Craig Thomson free-kick forcing McGregor to tip the ball over the bar.

This incident occurred after 27 minutes and was the first sign that Hearts could claw a way back into the game. Thomson immediately became prominent on the right and one of his crosses slipped across the Rangers goal with defenders in light blue floundering and home supporters howling in anxiety.

The menace of Hearts was not restricted to purely football matters. Four Hearts players – Zaliukas, Eggert Jonsson, Suso Santana, and Ian Black – were booked for challenges as the Edinburgh side fought to take a foothold in the game. Zaliukas and Black received their cards for challenges on Diouf. The latter was lucky to remain on the park after a reckless tackle that drew howls of abuse from Rangers fans who recalled the lunge from the midfielder that forced Nikica Jelavic on to the long-term injury list earlier this season.

Although Hearts induced referee Brian Winter to reach for his pocket regularly, they did not force McGregor into another save in the first half.

It was Rangers who threatened immediately on the restart. A typical rampage forward by Madjid Bougherra found him inside the box after a neat flick from Steven Davis but the Algerian’s strong shot was beaten away by Marian Kello. Diouf, always the centre of attention, followed a marvellously dramatic protest at the refusal to award Rangers a corner kick with a slack pass that Hearts should have exploited.

However, with Kevin Kyle missing, the Hearts attack desperately lacked a focal point. In contrast, Rangers managed to fashion a clear shooting chance for Maurice Edu but the American’s shot was deflected to safety. Diouf had a better chance to finish the match. Ruben Palazuelos passed loosely across the back and the ball was intercepted by the Senegalese forward who dithered when he should have shot, and the ball was scrambled to safety.

The nerves of the Rangers support, who were acutely aware that the lead was slender, were frayed until the last. Steven Naismith, on for Weiss, who had drifted out of the game, immediately had a chance when Lafferty’s shot was diverted into his path, but the Scottish internationalist took a touch and the ball ran safely to Kello.

The dynamic of the game was simple: could Rangers force a second or would Hearts somehow find a chance to stretch McGregor? Hearts brought on Gary Glen and Andrew Driver to try to force the latter eventuality.

However they could only muster two more bookings, for Ismael Bouzid and Ryan Stevenson. Rangers’ Davis did slam the ball into the net after Diouf’s shot was saved by Kello, but the Northern Irishman was ruled offside.

The Rangers fans howled in anguish but moments later they could sigh with relief, as full-time blew on the match and on Hearts’ chances of a title challenge.

Taken from the Herald

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