HEARTS extended their lead in third place of the cinch Scottish Premiership with a 2-0 victory over Motherwell at Tynecastle.

The comfortable win came thanks to a first-half strike from Andy Halliday and a tap-in on 57 minutes from Everton loanee Ellis Simms, his first for the club.

The defeat leaves the Steelmen without a win in four, despite threatening early in this one.

Robbie Neilson made six changes to his side ahead of Tuesday’s Edinburgh derby, with Barrie McKay the most notable absence from the starting line-up.

Despite the result, the Hearts manager wasn't exactly overwhelmed with the performance: "We still have to play better," said Neilson. "We didn’t control the game that well.

"Credit to Motherwell they make it like that. They get bodies around the ball, they play direct knock-downs. But we need to show a bit more composure."

Graham Alexander meanwhile brought in Ross Tierney, Callum Slattery and Celtic loanee Liam Shaw in favour of Sean Goss, Connor Shields and the suspended Liam Donnelly.

Within two minutes referee Craig Napier was reaching into his pocket to book Motherwell goalkeeper Liam Kelly for throwing the ball away after disagreeing with a passback decision. Hearts failed to take any advantage from the indirect free-kick just inside the 18-yard box.

The away side went on to edge the early stages of the match in terms of chances, with Kevin van Veen shooting low and just wide on 11 minutes after Cammy Devlin was robbed in the centre of the park.

Hearts began to settle in possession and it wasn’t long until the chances followed, with Halliday heading a Nathan Atkinson cross straight at Kelly and Ellis Simms failing to make the most of two chances after being sent down the channel via balls over the top of the Well defence.

By this point Alexander had lost Barry Maguire to injury and replaced him with Goss. Within a few minutes of his introduction, his side were behind. A Hearts attack broke down but Liam Boyce applied pressure in the opposition box and the ball spun to Devlin. The Australian remained calm to bide his time before feeding Halliday for a low finish.

The National: Andy Halliday puts Hearts ahead in the first half versus MotherwellAndy Halliday puts Hearts ahead in the first half versus Motherwell

On the stroke of half-time Mothwerwell spurned an excellent opportunity to level when Van Veen put a free header wide when he, again, should have at least worked the goalkeeper.

Hearts made a change of their own at half-time when Toby Sibbick – returning for a second spell at the club – replaced John Souttar. Neilson confirmed after the match that the defender had taken a knock in the first half.

It did nothing to disrupt the backline as the former Barnsley man slipped in seamlessly and Motherwell were kept at bay. At the other end there were chances wasted by Gary Mackay-Steven, whose weak effort went straight into the arms of the keeper following a sweeping counter, and Halliday before Simms popped up to score his first goal for Hearts.

Motherwell’s Shaw was dispossessed in midfield just ahead of the hour mark before Devlin slipped in Boyce down the right – he fired low across the goal for the big striker to tap in.

The National: Ellis Simms celebrates with his team-mates after scoring his first goal for HeartsEllis Simms celebrates with his team-mates after scoring his first goal for Hearts

With Boyce struggling for fitness at points this season, Hearts have lacked an adequate replacement. On this evidence, the towering 21-year-old is exactly what they’ve been missing – a goal threat who is also a physical presence.

"The clinical side of Hearts, particularly in those two attacks, was the difference in the result," said Alexander. "I thought over the whole game we played some really good stuff.

"I'm frustrated because I want to win and my team wants to win. I will take playing less well and winning. So, for me, it is a frustration because we want to pick up points, we don't want accolades for playing well and passing the ball without results. We're in the game to win and we haven't done that today.

"That's my overriding frustration. But I know we've got a good team and we've come here and competed against another good team. I don't think anyone could see the difference in the two teams apart from those two moments for the goals."

It could have been 3-0 not long after when Boyce rounded Kelly but his cutback was met by second-half substitute Ben Woodburn but his attempt was desperately blocked on the line by Stephen O’Donnell.

Alexander threw on Connor Shields and Justin Amaluzor but they failed to break through the much-changed Hearts backline which finished the game. Their once chance came in injury time when Amaluzor struck the ball on the half-volley, forcing a smart save from Craig Gordon to his bottom left.

Looking ahead to Tuesday’s Edinburgh derby Neilson dismissed the gap between Hearts and their rivals, extended after HIbs’ 3-2 defeat to Livingston. “It doesn’t really matter. We’re going to Easter Road so we have to win,” he said. 

“It doesn’t matter if we’re 10 points ahead or 10 points behind. All our focus now is going there and trying to get three points.”

Hearts (3-4-3): Gordon; Moore, Souttar, Kingsley; Atkinson, Devlin, Baningame, Halliday; Boyce, Simms, Mackay-Steven.

Motherwell (4-3-3): Kelly; O’Donnell, Solholm, Carroll, McGinley; Slattery, Maguire, Shaw; Robert, Van Veen, Tierney.