A HORROR moment for Greg Tansey compounded a poor night for Caley Thistle as they lost 2-0 to Hearts.
Tansey's 55th-minute back-pass was well short and allowed Abiola Dauda to nip in and score Hearts' second goal of the night, after Jamie Walker had given them the lead in the first half.
Caley Thistle struggled to test home goalkeeper Neil Alexander and despite having decent periods of possession, struggled for an end product.
The defeat means John Hughes' side could be five points off the top half come their next league action on March 13. Both Dundee and St Johnstone are in action tomorrow night and could press home their own top six claims.
Further stretched by player absentees, Inverness lost Ross Draper to suspension after he picked up his seventh yellow card of the season against Aberdeen last month.
Caley Thistle were able to name just five substitutes, with their four outfield players without a start for the club. John Hughes was deprived of 10 first-team players, Nat Wedderburn the latest player to miss out.
After a tepid opening 15 minutes Hearts started to threaten, firstly with Gavin Reilly who was denied a shot on goal by a timely intervention from Lewis Horner. The ball rebounded to Abiola Dauda who appeared destined to blast the ball home but for Danny Devine's block.
The closest Inverness came in the opening 25 minutes to testing Neil Alexander was through Jordan Roberts, who sent a header straight at the Hearts goalkeeper from an Iain Vigurs cross.
The game was lacking any real quality with neither side able to string more than three or four passes together. On one occasion Roberts was able to twist inside Igor Rossi but the finish, from an acute angle, was lacking.
Hearts' moment of inspiration nearly came on 31 minutes from the unlikeliest of sources – right-back Liam Smith. He juggled the ball around Carl Tremarco and exchanged passes with Gavin Reilly, working the ball on to his left foot and worrying Owain Fon Williams with a rising effort.
The ingenuity did come for Hearts via Arnaud Djoum, who scythed a pass through the Caley Thistle defence for Walker. He got between two visiting defenders to reach it and side-footed it into the bottom corner.
Some criticism has been levelled at the Jambos this season for being overly physical but on this display, it is highly dubious. Hearts were moving the ball about freely and through a determined run by Reilly, who got past Tremarco, they managed another shot towards goal, this time Rossi skidding an effort wide.
Robbie Neilson's side showed no signs of dropping the tempo at the start of the second half and Dauda immediately tested Fon Williams, with the Wales international repelling his shot with his feet.
If the plan was to frustrate Hearts at the start of the second half it unravelled quickly within the first 10 minutes. Tansey's attempted back-pass to Fon Williams was well short, allowing Dauda to collect possession and round the goalkeeper for 2-0.
It is too simplistic to say had Draper played Caley Thistle would have won but there is no doubt his influence is missed in the middle of the park. Djoum and Prince Buaben had a great degree of control over the middle of the park and were always eager to drive their team forward.
Had Dauda shown greater composure in space with 20 minutes to go Hearts could have been out of sight but his tame effort was straight at Fon Williams. At the other end, Tansey skewed a shot wide as the Caley Jags sought a lifeline in the match.
Such was their paucity of numbers Ryan Williams was thrown on up front and he nearly engineered an opening, finding Storey in the left channel but when his shot was parried, Hearts bodies were on hand to clear.
HEARTS: Alexander; Smith, Ozturk, Souttar, Rossi (McGhee, 80), Nicholson, Walker (Zanatta, 66), Buaben, Djoum, Reilly, Dauda (Cowie, 78). Subs unused: Hamilton, Augustyn, Pallardo, Delgado. Booked: Djoum.
CALEY THISTLE: Fon Williams; Horner (Hughes, 82), Devine, Warren, Tremarco, Polworth, Tansey, Vigurs, D. Williams, Storey, Roberts (R. Williams, 70). Subs unused: Esson, Brown, MacLennan. Booked: Roberts, Vigurs.
Referee: A. Muir.