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Stephen Frail <-auth Stuart Bathgate auth-> Charlie Richmond
4 of 015 ----- L SPL H

Season falls flat for lifeless Hearts as Falkirk tighten grip on top six

Home side's inability to be properly motivated proves costly as golden chance is squandered
HEARTS played this game listlessly, as if it were the end of the season. Given the result, it very probably was, at least for them.

This draw and Aberdeen's against St Mirren mean nothing has changed in terms of points difference among the three contenders for the last place in the top six, but the significant alteration, of course, is that there are now only two games to play. Falkirk's three-point advantage may yet be wiped out if Aberdeen beat them in the last game before the split, but they still have a significantly superior goal difference and so are favourites to finish in the upper half of the SPL. Saturday was Hearts' chance to alter that situation in their favour, but, after a lightly sparkling opening, the occasion soon fell flat.

This was not quite a return to the poor form of December from Stephen Frail's team, but given the match was tantamount to a cup-tie for them, their lack of drive was surprising. Nerves, rather than apathy, may have been the cause of that, but the squad's inability to become properly motivated is still a persistent concern.

Tynecastle sources continue to suggest that the over-long pre-season training under the heavy hand of their former coach, Eduard Malofeev, has been the primary cause of their ills, but the excuse collapses under the mildest of interrogations. The veteran's barking sessions surely contributed to Hearts' shambolic start in the league, but by early autumn they were playing with pattern and purpose. The resounding 4-2 home wins over both Rangers and Falkirk, for instance, would surely not have happened had Malofeev's methods been as chronically maleficent as has been alleged.

In other words, something rotten remains – something which Frail has been unable to eradicate. Hearts have lost a good few quality players over the past couple of years, but they still have a lot of talented players in their squad, and man for man look stronger than Falkirk. As a team, however, they do not.

John Hughes' side work hard, play decent football, and know how to stick to a game plan when it is working well. Here, for example, they closed Hearts down on the flanks by playing five across the back, and in the middle blunted the home team's attacks with some resolute defending.

But, while those tactics were sensible and posed Hearts a problem, they were hardly revolutionary, and should not have been enough to claim a valuable point. What do you do when you are being closed down by your opponents? If you have it, you use your superior skill to find a way through, and in players such as Laryea Kingston, Michael Stewart and Ruben Palazuelos, Hearts have that skill. But, with Kingston short of match fitness in his first club match since the Africa Cup of Nations, and Stewart off-form and given to futile displays of frustration, there was only so much Palazuelos could do. Home hopes were not helped by an early injury which forced Deividas Cesnauskis off. He was replaced by Audrius Ksanavicius, who had possibly his worst game since joining the club, and appeared to lose possession more often than he succeeded in passing to a team-mate.

Up front, Calum Elliot's hapless afternoon was epitomised by a second-half shot from a reasonably central position which went out of play for a throw-in.

Frail argued afterwards that Andrius Velicka, the top scorer who was sold to Viking Stavanger, would not have fared any better given the lack of chances created, but the striker at least presented more of a threat to defences when on the ball. Selling Velicka – to Norway from Kaunas, as he was only on loan to Hearts – may have made economic sense to Vladimir Romanov, who has a controlling influence in both the Edinburgh and Lithuanian clubs. But no-one at Hearts has simply stated that Velicka went for more money than the club would gain if they made it into the top six; in fact, no-one at Hearts has said anything to suggest they know what is going on inside Romanov's head.

Elliot at least had a shot on target during the bright start to the game, but it was blocked by Darren Barr, and in any case, passing left to Kingston would have been a better option than shooting. Saulius Mikoliunas was also denied early on when Robert Olejnik rushed out of his box – the goalkeeper had the home support appealing for handball when the winger's shot came off him.

And that was it from Hearts, who failed to muster another proper scoring chance in the remaining 70 minutes. Falkirk were also slow in coming forward, and Steve Banks h
ardly had a direct save to make, but that did not matter so much to them. Getting the point did, and they deservedly achieved that objective.

• Falkirk midfielder Patrick Cregg says he wants to stay with the club and is close to agreeing a new deal. There was a big gap at first between what the 22-year-old Dubliner was looking for and what was offered, but the parties are now closer to reaching an agreement, with manager John Hughes keen to keep the player. "I want to stay at Falkirk, so hopefully I'll sign," said Cregg.

Man of the match
Darren Barr (Falkirk)

The centre-back was at the heart of an assured performance by the Falkirk defence, calmly dealing with everything which came his way – whether it was on the ground or in the air. As John Hughes said, Falkirk's defence began from the front, but Barr was nonetheless the crucial marshalling influence.

Taken from the Scotsman

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