Hearts beat Aberdeen as battle for third place heats up
Lawrence Shankland scored a second-half winner as Hearts defeated Aberdeen 2-1 at Tynecastle to crank up the heat on their opponents in the battle for third place in the cinch Premiership.
The Dons arrived at Tynecastle boasting a five-point lead over the Jambos and they looked on course to kill off their hosts’ hopes of catching them when Mattie Pollock headed the opening goal just after the half hour.
But a stunning equaliser from Josh Ginnelly and Shankland’s 27th goal of the season turned the game in the Edinburgh side’s favour as they closed the gap to just two points with two matches remaining in the battle for automatic European group-stage qualification next term.
Hearts made two changes to the team that started the 2-2 draw at St Mirren as full-backs James Hill and Andy Halliday dropped to the bench to make way for Nathaniel Atkinson and Alex Cochrane.
There were three alterations to the Aberdeen side that drew 0-0 at home to Hibernian as Jayden Richardson, Connor Barron and Marley Watkins replaced Ryan Duncan, Hayden Coulson and talismanic striker Luis Lopes.
After a relatively low-key start, things started to liven up after the Dons had Jonny Hayes booked for a robust challenge on Yutaro Oda in the 11th minute.
Hearts captain Shankland had the first notable attempt of the match in the 14th minute when he was denied from just inside the box by a save from Kelle Roos.
The Aberdeen keeper had to stand firm two minutes later to keep out a powerful angled strike from Oda after the Japanese attacker nicked the ball off Hayes and got himself clear in the box.
The Dons’ first opportunity came in the 17th minute when Watkins cut inside Kyle Rowles and saw a shot from the edge of the box blocked by Zander Clark.
The hosts continued to look the more threatening side, though, and Shankland fired over from 12 yards after Aberdeen failed to deal with a corner into the box.
The Dons seized the advantage in the 31st minute when Leighton Clarkson’s corner looped beyond Clark and on-loan Watford centre-back Pollock rose to nod home at the back post.
Hearts had a great chance to equalise two minutes later when Ginnelly back-heeled a pass from Barrie McKay into the path of Cochrane, who was bursting into the centre of the box, but the left-back saw his effort brilliantly blocked by Aberdeen defender Liam Scales.
Shankland hooked a shot over from just inside the box and Oda had another ferocious strike beaten away by Roos as Hearts cranked up the pressure.
The visitors were generally struggling to get into dangerous positions, although Pollock threatened again from another set-piece when he headed wide after connecting with Hayes’ free-kick in the 40th minute.
Hearts deservedly drew level in the most poignant and spectacular fashion when Ginnelly unleashed a stunning angled strike into the top corner from 25 yards out at a time when the home support were in the middle of an emotional minute’s applause for Hearts supporter David Stewart, who recently died aged 42. Fireworks were also going off outside the ground as a tribute to the late Jambo the moment the ball hit the net.
Cochrane then fizzed a shot agonisingly wide of the far post as Hearts finished the half on the front foot.
The home side remained in the ascendancy at the start of the second half and they got themselves in front when top scorer Shankland flicked home at the near post after Cochrane ran on to a pass from McKay and crossed from the left.
McKay then curled just past the post after being released on the left by Ginnelly and Shankland scuffed an effort wide as the hosts tried to turn the screw. Despite only holding a slender lead, Hearts were able to see out victory in relatively comfortable fashion.