Rangers' hopes of denying Celtic a fourth consecutive Scottish Premier League title suffered a major blow on Saturday when Walter Smith's side went down to a 2-1 defeat by ten-man Hearts. The Hearts players have not been paid this week, forcing the club to deny it has been hit by the fallout from the credit crunch. But there was no sign of them lacking motivation as they notched up a fifth consecutive win thanks to first-half goals from Marius Zaliukas and Laryea Kingston.
Rangers quickly pulled a goal back through Kris Boyd, whose header was helped over the line by Christos Karipidis. But the Ibrox giants were unable to conjure up an equaliser, despite the home side playing the last quarter of an hour with a numerical disadvantage after Lee Wallace was dismissed for a second yellow card offence. The Rangers' loss handed Celtic the opportunity to pull seven points clear at the top of the table by beating Inverness Caledonian Thistle at Parkhead. Hearts remained in third place, seven points adrift of Rangers.
Hearts took the lead after 20 minutes when Bruno Aguiar's free-kick found Christophe Berra. The midfielder's header struck the post but the rebound fell to left Zaliukas with a simple finish. Three minutes later, Hearts doubled their lead after another free-kick from Aguiar again found Berra's head. This time Allan McGregor blocked but the Rangers goalkeeper was unable to prevent Kingston from bundling the loose ball over the line.
Rangers quickly picked themselves up and got back into the match through Boyd's looping header, which struck the underside of the bar and ricocheted over the line off Karipidis. Nacho Novo was thrown on by Rangers after the break in place of the ineffective Jean-Claude Darcheville. Chris Burke also entered the fray for his first appearance since suffering an ankle injury in last season's Scottish Cup semi-final. But despite having Wallace dismissed, following a foul on Burke, Hearts were able to hold on to make it five wins on the trot -- their best run since George Burley guided them to the top of the SPL at the start of the 2005-06 season.