There seemed a determination among both sides to keep a resolution at bay, and it took sudden death to separate them. It was into the seventh round of penalty kicks that Sean Dillon missed, and Hearts could finally savour the 5-4 victory. They had been the more able side, and could consider their night's work and passage in the Scottish Communities League Cup semi-finals well-deserved, although United were perplexing throughout.
With Hearts reduced to 10 men after the dismissal of Darren Barr in the second half, Peter Houston had to remove one of his players from the list of penalty takers. He chose Rudi Skacel, the former Hearts attacker, who responded with a display of frustration. An accomplished penalty taker, Skacel watched from the touchline rather than join his team-mates in the centre-circle.
Until the final act, tension had to be generated, since the sparse crowd at Tannadice created only a muted atmo_sphere. The turnout of 3789 – United's lowest of the season – would have caused disquiet in the directors' box, but the game itself was also affected, since there was a general lack of urgency. Even a rasping drive from Arvydas Novikovas in the opening minute that flew narrowly wide failed to raise the tempo of the play. The winger was intermittently sprightly, but the home fans would have been more unnerved to see Jon Daly look clumsy and uncertain on the ball, since he has been their most accomplished performer this season.
Hearts had to show an element of resourcefulness, since their own play tended to be untidy and lacking in purpose. There was no sense of panic in the United defence when Ryan Stevenson collected the ball on the left flank, but the Hearts midfielder drilled the ball towards the near post, and Callum Paterson was alert enough to react first and bundle it over the line from close range before Radoslaw Cierzniak, the United goalkeeper, could intercept.
United ought to have been more wary, since the teenager has scored three times in his first full season at Hearts, and all of the goals have come at Tannadice.
The goal was a rebuke to United for their lacklustre play, and they briefly became disgruntled. One decision by Calum Murray, the referee, left Dillon lecturing the official. Some of the frustration would have been caused by their own meagre display. They were even exposed after clearing their lines from a corner kick, since Ryan McGowan swept the ball first-time across the field and into the path of Danny Grainger. The full-back cut into the penalty area, but his shot was beaten away by Cierzniak.
United's display was so inept that their best hope was to take advantage of a sense of complacency among the visitors. There had been no meaningful attacks for Hearts to defend when Michael Gardyne gathered the ball on the right corner of the penalty area. Marius Zaliukas and Grainger were still alert enough to block the midfielder's shot, but the ball spun to Johnny Russell who, with his first signifciant touch of the ball, turned it into the net past Jamie MacDonald, the Hearts goalkeeper.
The equaliser would not have spared the United players from the harsh words that Peter Houston would have been composing throughout the opening half, There was certainly a greater resolution to their play after the interval, and Gavin Gunning made good progress down the left before delivering a cross that MacDonald managed to beat away. The ball only carried as far as Stuart Armstrong, but his awkward effort was skewed wide.
The shot represented a flourish for the home side, but it did not quell Hearts' sense of endeavour. It was the visitors who were still able to create the clearer goalscoring opportunities, with a Taouil free kick punched away by Cierzniak and Paterson sending an acrobatic volley against the upright. Even sending on a talisman could not alter United's fortunes.
Gary Mackay-Steven came off the bench in the 66th minute, to make his first appearance since the end of August after undergoing knee surgery. The welcome back was curt, since Andy Webster immediately left him crumpled on the turf with a heavy challenge in the air. It was not the Hearts defender's most damaging intervention, though, since moments later he was short with a pass back towards Barr. Russell intercepted the ball, but Barr still lunged in, prompting his second yellow card. Once down to 10 men, Hearts sought to contain the game, and it drifted into extra time.
The prospect of having to decide the game on penalties was not enough to lift either side out of the mundane tempo it had fallen into. The arrival of Skacel as a substitute animated both sets of supporters, and he received a warm welcome.
One decent chance did fall to Skacel, but he lashed it wide, then Rankin hit the post. It required penalties to separate the sides.
Scorers. Dundee United – Russell (35); Hearts – Paterson (21) Hearts win 5-4 after penalties