Trailing to Edgaras Jankauskas’ first-half goal, Alex McLeish’s men matched steel and skill to fight back and earn a draw through Thomas Buffel’s strike that keeps them within six points of Hearts.
The home side looked the dominant team before the break but were largely outplayed by Rangers in the second half, with the Light Blues perhaps unfortunate not to return to Glasgow with all three points.
On the back of a convincing 4-0 win over Kilmarnock, this was another two fingers to those critics who had prematurely written off Rangers’ chances of catching Hearts this season.
McLeish had insisted in his pre-match briefing that this was not a “must-win” match for his team although there was no doubting the significance of the fixture as a tumultuous season approaches the finishing straits.
Defeat was largely unthinkable for Rangers here if they were to retain hopes of finishing second and with it a return to the Champions League next season and a promising start yielded an opportunity within the opening minute as Buffel and Chris Burke combined before the winger’s cross was deflected for a corner.
It would prove, however, to be a rare lapse in concentration from Hearts who thereafter snapped into every tackle and closed down every Rangers attack as if their lives depended on it, perhaps fearful of the repercussions from Mr Romanov should they under perform.
Rangers had been undone by an early Hearts goal on their last visit to Tynecastle and clearly hadn’t learnt from the experience this time around.
It was a simple goal from Hearts’ point of view although McLeish would have been apopletic at the way the waif-like Deividas Cesnauskis – possessing not only the looks but the build of an emaciated Pete Doherty – was able to stumble through three tackles to send Paul Hartley running clear wide on the right.
Ronald Waterreus, perhaps awaiting the assistant’s offside flag, ventured gingerly from his goal then stumbled back but by then it was too late. Hartley had fizzed the ball past him to give the unmarked Jankauskas the simplest task of drilling in a low shot into the open net.
It could have been worse for Rangers were it not from some fantastic defending from Julien Rodriguez who time and time again thwarted promising Hearts attacks with some well-measured last-ditch tackles.
At the other end the Rangers pairing of Buffel and Peter Lovenkrands were, unsurprisingly, winning little in the aerial battle with Steven Pressley and Andy Webster but were far more effective with the ball arriving at their feet.
One flowing move that involved five Rangers players ended only when Buffel slipped at an untimely moment while Lovenkrands forced Gordon into his own real save of the first half with a left-foot thrash that looked destined to creep in at the far corner then ballooned a free kick well over the bar from a promising position.
Rangers saved their most threatening moment for the final moment of a combative first half. Burke escaped the clutches of his marker to fire a tantalising ball across goal that eluded Buffel by the slimmest of margins to succinctly sum up Rangers’ fortunes in the opening 45 minutes.
Their luck showed little sign of improving in the early stages of the second half. First Dado Prso was booked for jumping into Pressley then Rangers were denied what looked a certain goal by an astonishing stop from Gordon.
Lovenkrands’ free kick took a wicked ricochet off the defensive wall and just when it seemed Buffel must score, the Hearts keeper reacted instinctively to deny him with a point-blank stop.
Gordon, however, could do little to stop Rangers from drawing level after 64 minutes. Prso created the move with a pass wide to Burke and when the winger drilled another sweet pass right across the face of the goal Buffel atoned for his earlier miss by sliding the ball beyond the keeper at the far post.
With the game threatening to boil over amid a succession of niggly tackles and some inconsistent refereeing – Roman Bednar committed around eight fouls without seeing a yellow card – Rangers seemed to have a decent shout for a penalty when Prso was shoved in the back by Robbie Neilson. As was his trademark gesture all afternoon, referee Craig Thomson merely shook his head and played on.
The Light Blues should have gone in front after 77 minutes and this time the match officials were not to blame.
Brahim Hemdani’s through ball to substitute Kris Boyd bobbled into the path of Burke but, in a rare lack of composure, the winger dragged his shot wide of goal from around six yards.
It was a golden chance and, with Rangers well on top, moments later Buffel similarly couldn’t find the target when it looked easier to score and almost paid for the profligacy when Robbie Neilson pranged the Rangers crossbar with a dipping effort from all of 30 yards.
HEARTS (4-4-2): 1 Gordon; 2 Neilson, 4 Pressley, 6 Webster, 3 Fyssas; 18 Cesnauskis, 10 Hartley, 28 Brellier, 8 Skacel (Mikoliunas 86); 12 Bednar (Elliot 76), 9 Jankauskas
Subs not used:Banks, Berra, Goncalves, Aguiar, Petras
Booked: Hartley (42), Skacel (72), Brellier (89)
RANGERS: 25 Waterreus; 20 Hutton, 14 Kyrgiakos, 16 Rodriguez, 24 Murray; 17 Burke, 7 Hemdani, 6 Ferguson, 9 Prso (Novo 75); 26 Lovenkrands (Boyd 55), 4 Buffel
Subs not used: Klos, Ricksen, Andrews, Namouchi, Smith
Booked: Burke (39), Prso (47)