THE scoreline indicates that Celtic destroyed Hearts. In front of goal, they absolutely did, yet this was one of the strangest games of this or any other season. The SPL champions left Tynecastle with a 4-0 victory, despite their goalkeeper being man of the match by the length of Gorgie Road. Quite simply, Celtic’s ruthless finishing proved decisive in a game which might have ended 4-4.
The imperious Fraser Forster produced marvellous stops from Ryan Stevenson, Marius Zaliukas and Kevin McHattie before ending the evening by saving Zaliukas’ penalty. At the other end, his colleagues needed no second invitation whenever the Hearts goal was in view. Lassad Nouioui, Mikael Lustig and Gary Hooper all scored, allied to a Ryan Stevenson own goal.
Celtic’s response to Saturday’s home defeat by Inverness was emphatic and left manager Neil Lennon purring over his team’s quality just days after threatening to quit. They were 3-0 ahead and certain of three points after just half an hour’s play in Edinburgh. With Forster in such defiant form, chances of their league title being surrendered would appear non-existent.
Hearts claimed their own positives despite their recent financial troubles. They began with seven youth academy graduates in their starting line-up, with McHattie replacing the injured Danny Grainger at left-back. Celtic had just one, Charlie Mulgrew, who they released and eventually re-signed. The young Jambos did not look out of place, although their inexperience was evident on a few occasions. It was a learning experience for kids like McHattie, Jason Holt, Dylan McGowan and Jamie Walker, and there was plenty to garner from facing such an aggressive and inexorable Celtic team.
“The scoreline was harsh on us. I though we put a lot of effort in,” said the Hearts manager, John McGlynn. “The stats were a lot closer than the scoreline. We found ourselves 3-0 down at half-time but it could easily have been 2-2. Celtic were clinical, they took their chances. Our young guys tried to play and kept the ball. I thought Ryan McGowan was good on the right, our two centre-backs did well and Callum Paterson worked hard up front.
“Celtic have options up front and we don’t have that luxury. We had a lot of young players on the park who will learn from that experience. Fraser Forster even saved our penalty, as well as two of our free kicks. You can understand why he is in the England squad. Key saves at key moments turn games in your favour. It’s a wee bit demoralising watching it, to be honest. You get chances and he makes some great saves. From the same amount of opportunities as us, Celtic got four goals.”
The opening goal was sheer simplicity. Kris Commons’ left-footed cross swirled to the far side of the Hearts penalty box, where the unmarked Lassad lashed an emphatic strike beyond Jamie MacDonald. The marking of the Tunisian was poor as he floated untracked into the danger area from a deep position.
Quickly there came a priceless chance for Hearts to equalise, however the unmarked Paterson failed to connect with Stevenson’s free kick just yards from goal and was left holding his head in his hands. The teenager remonstrated with referee William Collum moments later after he fell in a challenge with the visiting centre-back Kelvin Wilson and was refused a penalty.
Celtic doubled their advantage on 23 minutes when Lassad’s cut-back from the right was blocked by Darren Barr, only for Lustig to prod the loose ball into the net. Hearts appeared shellshocked at that point, although they were by no means playing badly. The difference was Celtic’s pitiless finishing in front of goal. When the hosts did fashion an opening, they met the immovable object that is Forster.
The Englishman produced a wondrous double save on 25 minutes to emphasise his stature as one of Britain’s best goalkeepers. Stevenson’s vicious 25-yard free kick was parried and Zaliukas’ follow-up header pushed away, one save coming within milliseconds of the other. Celtic’s third goal put the result well beyond doubt despite there being a full hour of play remaining. Hooper flicked Commons’ cross out wide to Mulgrew, and his return ball was diverted beyond MacDonald by Stevenson for an unfortunate own goal.
The second half began with another exquisite save from Forster. He tipped a powerful free kick, this time from McHattie, away from goal to preserve his clean sheet. MacDonald then held an effort from Lassad, and tempers frayed somewhat on the hour mark when Commons’ keepy-ups irritated the McGowan brothers after the midfielder was supposed to give a drop ball straight back to the hosts.
In the stands, the Celtic support were also irritating the Tynecastle natives. Senseless chanting in support of the IRA plus choruses of “you’re going to die like the Rangers” brought an unseemly side to what was otherwise a crackling atmosphere. Celtic have a fine and passionate following who ought to have been content watching their team construct a 4-0 away win. Instead, they focused on the unnecessary, and it must be said some Hearts fans did likewise with songs relating to Jimmy Savile.
When Hooper’s side-footed finish put Mulgrew’s cross into the Hearts net for Celtic’s fourth goal seven minutes from full-time, the home support were entitled to believe their misery was complete. There was, however, one more act of brilliance from Forster to come. He dived low to his right to save Zaliukas’ penalty – awarded when Wilson collided with Stevenson – with two minutes remaining.
“I was just doing my bit for the team because it’s important we keep clean sheets,” said the Celtic goalkeeper. “We had a bit of a European hangover on Saturday and we knew it was unacceptable. The gaffer asked for a reaction and that’s what he got. I’ve watched Zaliukas take penalties before, he scored his last one by going that way (against Inverness) so I thought he would go that way again.”
Lennon was pleased to finish the night a point clear at the top of the SPL. He was also satisfied with the reaction of his players after losing to Inverness, although frustrated that they had to be fired up by a home defeat in the first place.
“I said I don’t want to keep looking for reactions. I want to be consistent,” he said. “In the first half we looked clinical and played at a tempo in a cracking atmosphere. I never questioned the players’ character, I know what I’ve got and that’s why I defend them so vigorously at times. We need to find consistency at home, and then we’ll take some stopping. We felt if we beat Hearts it would put a different complexion on things in the league.”
Lennon got his reaction, now Hearts will look for theirs. It just so happens their next game is a Scottish Cup tie at Easter Road.