Thursday, January 27, 2011

Broken Hearts?

Celtic 4 - Hearts 0

Is that it then? Did Hearts title challenge amount to little more than a scrappy win over Rangers and three days of hope before a meek capitulation against Celtic?

That's how it will play in today's papers.

Maybe we were all a bit guilty of being overly optimistic. Those of use not in thrall to either Glasgow club, maybe even some that are, desperately want a challenge.

Desperately enough to load a team with the burden of expectation on flimsy and premature evidence.

Certainly Hearts played poorly last night. But they also played poorly on Saturday when beating Rangers. They were poor going out of the cup against St Johnstone and went a goal behind at Kilmarnock.

David Templeton lit up the SPL a month or two ago. Now he needs time to develop his game. Without Kevin Kyle Hearts are lacking their indomitable focal point.

Throw in some bad defending and a kamikaze performance from Rudi Skacel and a 4-0 defeat suddenly becomes less inexplicable. Especially against a Celtic team who are clicking in attack and carrying a big, big goal threat.

Jim Jefferies' anger at the cup loss to St Johnstone maybe spoke volumes about his ambitions. He's no mug, old Jim. As aware as he can be glum, he probably realised that Hearts' hopes of a really successful season were ruined in the cup game.

So what now? One defeat in a dozen games is not a disaster. The gap is not as narrow as it might have been at the top but Hearts look to have third place sewn up. If they can somehow stitch together another run as impressive as the one they've been on since October they can still play a role in the title race.

Maybe the chance to challenge is gone, maybe the chance was never there. But Hearts can still have the Old Firm looking over their shoulders, can still make life difficult.

There will be talk of a title challenge in tatters.

That is both a compliment to their season so far and a result of the over reaction to Saturday's game.

The key for Hearts, for Jefferies and for his owner, is that there is now something to build on at Tynecastle.

There is a real opportunity to build that fabled third force in Scottish football, a third force that is closer to the Old Firm than we've seen in recent seasons.

Maybe, just maybe, next year we'll be talking about Hearts travelling to Celtic or Rangers as challengers in March or April.

That, more than a scrappy win over Rangers and some late January hysteria from all of us watching on, would be real progress.

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