Captaining Hearts has mostly been a joy for Alim Ozturk, who has led the club into Europe in his first season wearing the armband. Saturday might have been his toughest afternoon yet in maroon. Defensive mistakes against Celtic simply aren’t an option, as the Turkish centre-back and his colleagues discovered.
A 3-1 victory for the Glasgow club all but secured a fifth successive league title. Manager Ronny Deila will soon depart and is clearly determined to go on a high. Winning at Tynecastle prompted plenty euphoria as Celtic extended an unbeaten run against Hearts to 15 games. The home team could only lament errors at the back and felt all three goals conceded were preventable.
Juwon Oshaniwa was out of position at the first, when Celtic’s Mikael Lustig charged forward from right-back to cross for Colin Kazim-Richards. He cleverly chested the ball down and drove home his first league goal in Scotland. Celtic also had a goal disallowed in the first half for offside, a decision proven incorrect by TV replays. Substitute Abiola Dauda’s brilliant solo equaliser early in the second half hinted that Hearts had the potential to go on and win this match.
However, two attempted clearances by Ozturk led to Celtic’s second. Perry Kitchen’s header put John Souttar under pressure and Patrick Roberts stole the ball to run through and nutmeg Neil Alexander. The visitors’ third saw Souttar punished trying to clear from defence. Leigh Griffiths charged the ball down and sped forward to nutmeg Souttar before driving home a goal which effectively clinched the Premiership trophy.
Ozturk is the leader in a young Hearts defence which includes Souttar at 19 and Callum Paterson at 21. The skipper himself is only 23. Mistakes are inevitable, although it is inadvisable to make them against a lethal Celtic forward line. The only option is to try to recover during three remaining league fixtures.
“We still want to keep winning games,” stressed Ozturk. “Losing at Motherwell wasn’t good enough last week and on Saturday there were individual mistakes. In the second half, we came back to 1-1. We were strong in that period and I don’t know if I can say it but it was a sh***y goal, the second one. And the third one.
“You have to build it up from here. Wherever you finish, at least third in the league, is really good after coming from the Championship. We have lost two games in a row and maybe people think, ‘they are happy with third place’, but we still want to keep winning games. This happens in football and we have to deal with it.”
The frustration for Hearts was that they could easily have taken command of this game but for the erratic defending. Dauda’s sumptuous equaliser on 57 minutes after a dribbling run past several opponents offered a platform to build on. Falling behind again when Roberts scored nine minutes later destroyed the momentum.
Hearts hope to challenge Celtic next season with a stronger squad but there are now 20 points between the clubs. “I think we have a strong team with young talent. If you can keep this group together then I think we will have a strong team again next year, and we will see where we can finish,” said Ozturk.
“We beat Aberdeen in the Scottish Cup and the league. The last game against Celtic away was a really good performance, the result was just not there. On Saturday, the difference was not that big. We scored at 1-1, we put pressure on them and everything was going well. You have to keep the concentration. We made a mistake and they have quality players to kill us.”
Robbie Neilson, the Hearts head coach, pointed to the inexperience of his back line and insisted those who erred can only learn. “He [Souttar] is 19 years old and is playing in the biggest game in Scotland this weekend. He is still learning the game but his passing, along with Ozturk, gives us the base to play the game. Unfortunately, they made a mistake each and it cost us two goals. There are going to be days when they won’t and we will win the games. But as long as they learn from it.”
Like Ozturk, Neilson predicted that the gap between Hearts and Celtic will continue reducing. “We are getting closer. We are coming into these games trying to win, where before the aim was to turn in a good performance. The performances are there now, we just need to try and get the good results. I think we can get closer to Celtic next season because we are always improving.”
Deila celebrated with his players on the Tynecastle pitch at full-time. Aberdeen can now only draw level with Celtic on points, but the Parkhead club have a vastly superior goal difference. They need only one more point to be mathematically crowned champions.
“I am very happy and proud as well. It is a tough job, especially in the last week,” said Deila. “The players are standing behind me all the time and they gave a fantastic performance. You always ask me ‘have you lost the dressing room?’ I know I never did and Saturday shows that.
“The players are standing behind me all the time and they gave a fantastic performance.
“I am so happy for them and also that we can give something back to the fantastic supporters, who have been standing behind us for the whole season. Five titles in a row has not happened so many times and you have to enjoy it and I am going to enjoy it, I can assure you of that.
“The biggest challenge in this club is unity. When you are winning and winning and everybody wants you down from the throne and wants to split us. But if you stay together, the supporters and players, the rest of the club, we are hard to beat and that was shown today. The supporters were really behind us, the players were fighting for each other and then Celtic were the best team.”