St Johnstone stuck rigidly to their shape to down Hearts in a match where both teams could not forge a sure foothold.
Hearts were forced into a number of changes after Wednesday’s Scottish Cup victory at St Mirren.
Hamill, Skacel and Black dropped to the bench for Robinson, Novikovas and Holt, while Beattie played no part after taking an injection in order to play the tie. Gary Glen took his place up front.
The hosts lined up in a conventional 4-4-2 shape. Liam Craig patrolled the left flank with Lee Croft on the right. Jody Morris and Murray Davidson formed the central base to protect and release the attacking four.
Hearts were a 4-3-3 on the attack, with Driver on the left and Novikovas on the right of the central Gary Glen.
Darren Barr sat deep to protect the youthful centre midfield duo of Robinson and Holt, with Holt bombing forward to close down and the wingers falling back into midfield when St Johnstone were in possession.
The width of the Perth men was an immediate threat, with Craig roaming into position to use his dangerous left foot. Croft sang from the same hymnsheet on the right and St Johnstone’s attacks were focused on Sandaza and Sheridan securing the ball and playing in their wide men.
Hearts were less sure of their best way forward. Balls to Glen’s feet were not working, placing passes over the shoulders of the wingers was fruitless. Driver managed to break in his trademark direct style but his crosses were not hitting their targets.
In addition the St Johnstone ‘pack hunting’ way of closing space had Holt and Robinson spooked.
After a fruitless 25 minutes for either side, the Saints swapped Croft and Craig around, but the intention to cut inside was equally forlorn.
The breakthrough came after the best passing play of the half for Hearts in 29 minutes. Robinson fed McGowan who put his head down and made for the byline. The Australian defender’s pull back was met on the half-volley by Holt and in to the net off the near post.
By the nature of the game no team was holding a sustained period of pressure, and it was no surprise that Saints were back on terms within six minutes.
Hearts left back area was left exposed as Grainger took a corner. When it broke to Craig to sent Sandaza scampering down the right channel.
A throw in later, the Spaniard held off three challenges and invited Croft to cross. The on-loan Derby County wide man duly found Murray Davidson who guided the ball into the bottom left hand corner.
The second half offered much of the same.
Hearts regular forays into St Johnstone territory were mainly foiled by their own poor touches and hesitancy, though Wright and McCracken were more than up for the contest. Gary Glen didn’t get an inch all game.
Hearts were first to show their hand tactically, with Holt and Novikovas being replaced by Suso and Hamill.
The initial indications were this would pay off for Paulo Sergio’s men as first Driver then Suso surged behind the Saints defence. Driver and Suso narrowed the play, with Robinson taking the wide right berth.
It was a rare surge down St Johnstone’s right that decided the game though. Sandaza, ever making something out of nothing, jinked in to the box close to the byeline. His sidestep eluded Zaliukas, and with the invitation of a dragging leg afforded to the Saints top scorer, he obligingly tumbled over it for a penalty.
Chasing the game Hearts sent Barr back to the defence and Zaliukas provided height in midfield. The club captain’s physique nearly gave Hearts the leveller.
His flick found Glen at the back post who struck the post from an impossible angle. Glen compounded a bad day for himself and Hearts when he miscued a lob when one-on-one with Mannus and watched it bobble wide.