Gnanduillet and Walker keep Hearts on the right track

Hearts maintained their sizeable advantage at the top of the Championship table with an uneventful 2-0 victory over Ayr United at Tynecastle. Jamie McIntosh reports.

Goals late in the second half assured victory for the league leaders against Ayr. (Photo Credit – Jamie McIntosh)

Pre-Match

Ayr United arrived at Tynecastle with a new manager in the dugout, after David Hopkin was appointed the new manager of The Honest Men on Thursday. Hopkin’s last game in charge of former club Morton was a 2-0 defeat to Hearts at Cappielow in December, a game in which Morton contributed very little, with Hopkin employing rather conservative tactics.

The Honest Men have kept three away clean sheets in a row, following Tuesday’s 0-0 draw at Stark’s Park and I’m sure David Hopkin would have bitten your hand off for a clean sheet at Tynecastle. 

Hopkin’s first team selection as Ayr manager was unchanged from the side that started against Raith. 

As for Hearts, they got back to winning ways last weekend with a hard-fought victory against Dundee. Manager Robbie Neilson also opted for the same 11 players, sticking with the diamond formation in midfield which served Hearts well last weekend. Craig Gordon captained the side on his 200th Hearts appearance.

The Match

It was an uneventful start with no real chances in the opening 15 minutes. Hearts were dominating possession, whilst Ayr were compact in a 4-5-1 formation, looking to hit Hearts on the break. 

Ayr keeper Viljami Sinisalo would’ve expected a busy afternoon in the United goal, and he was finally called into action for the first time, midway through the first half. A ball into the box was met by Andy Halliday who almost scored in back-to-back matches but was denied by the Ayr stopper, before three Hearts players got in each other’s way when going for the rebound, which allowed the visitors to clear their lines.

Hearts were struggling to create, despite having the majority of the ball. Sinisalo was alert again, this time denying Armand Gnanduillet after a well-timed run from the striker – the resulting corner was headed wide at the back post by Craig Halkett.

Game management would’ve been a key point of David Hopkin’s pre match team talk. Ayr had given a very good account of themselves in the first half and they were deservedly on terms in what was a very poor first half from a Hearts perspective.

Hearts didn’t have any more luck at the start of the second half either. As such, Neilson turned to his bench and introduced Jamie Walker and Gervane Kastaneer in place of Aaron McEneff and Gary Mackay-Steven after 65 minutes.

It was almost an instant impact from Walker as he latched on to a rebound from a Michael Smith shot. The winger was leaning back though and his effort cleared the crossbar, in what was the clearest chance of the second half by a long way.

The breakthrough did arrive just a few minutes later. Andy Irving’s free kick from the right was headed home at the back post by Gnanduillet. The striker had scored his fourth goal for Hearts, finally breaking the deadlock.

Hearts sealed the points five minutes from time, and it was the substitute Walker with his seventh goal of the season. A cross from the right was met by Kastaneer, who’s miscued header fell straight to Walker, who lashed it in to the roof of the net.

Kastaneer should’ve made it three in stoppage time, but was denied by Sinisalo. It mattered not a jot however, as goals from Gnanduillet and Walker secured another three points for the Jambos. Official confirmation of their return to the Scottish Premiership seems only a matter of games away.

Post-Match Comments

Hearts manager Robbie Neilson was relieved to rack up another three points, but admitted the game, as well as his side’s performance, was far from brilliant:

“It was a difficult first half to try and break them down. They sat with 11 players, 30 yards from goal. The second half was probably a bit better for us, as the game was a bit more open. When we got our chances in the first half, we didn’t take them, which again makes things more difficult for us, but second half I thought we were better.”

Defeat in his first match as Ayr United manager for David Hopkin, however he was encouraged by what he saw from his players, in a game that was always going to be challenging:

“I’m really pleased with some of the attributes I saw, I think once I get a week in training with the players, things will come good. I like what I saw today, but I’ve already seen a few things we need to iron out. The players have had a tough week, it’s a tough run of fixtures for us just now, but positives to take from today’s performance, it’s just disappointing to concede from a set piece. If we defend that, I think we leave here with a point today.”

With the Championship title just a few wins away, Hearts travel to Gayfield next Saturday to take on Arbroath, a ground which they struggled at earlier in the season. As for Ayr United, they’re playing their third game in seven days as they travel to Dens Park on Tuesday to take on 4th placed Dundee.

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