Josh Ginnelly scored a second-half double as Hearts defeated St Johnstone 2-0 at Tynecastle to move eight points clear of nearest rivals Motherwell in the race for third place in the cinch Premiership.
It was a fourth win in five games for Robbie Neilson’s high-flying side, while Saints were left to rue an eighth consecutive league defeat that keeps them two points adrift of Dundee at the foot of the table.
Scotland centre-back John Souttar started for Hearts despite anger from some of the club’s supporters over the fact he agreed a pre-contract with Rangers last week.
New signing Nathaniel Atkinson was listed among the substitutes, alongside top scorer Liam Boyce, who is still nursing a calf problem.
Saints manager Callum Davidson gave debuts to January signings Daniel Cleary and Nadir Ciftci.
Every touch from Souttar in the early stages was loudly jeered by sections of the Hearts support, although most of the dissent towards the defender subsided as the match wore on, with many fans attempting to drown out the lingering jeers with applause whenever he was in possession.
The hosts had the first chance in the ninth minute after Alex Cochrane headed Ginnelly’s cross back across goal, but Michael Smith volleyed well wide from a tight angle.
Hearts enjoyed the bulk of possession but struggled to create any clear chances in the first half. Smith saw two attempts from the edge of the box charged down in quick succession in the 23rd minute before Barrie McKay had a low strike tipped behind by Zander Clark.
Saints’ first chance came in the 25th minute when Ciftci got in behind the home defence, but Craig Gordon made a fine save.
The Turkish forward had another attempt from the edge of the box blocked by the chest of the Hearts goalkeeper in the 36th minute after he nicked the ball off Stephen Kingsley just outside the box.
Hearts made the perfect start to the second half when they took the lead within 20 seconds of the kick-off as Ginnelly ran on to a through ball from McKay and fired past Clark from just inside the box.
Saints had a good chance to equalise in the 65th minute when Michael O’Halloran cut the ball back for Stevie May but the striker fluffed his effort straight at Gordon.
A minute later Hearts attacker Gary Mackay-Steven saw an angled shot parried by Clark and Murray Davidson made a firm challenge on Ginnelly just as he looked set to knock the rebound in
The home side sealed their win in the 75th minute when Ginnelly slotted past Clark from 10 yards out after a brilliant run and pass from McKay to set him up.
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