TWO second half goals from Kris Commons and James Forrest denied Hearts a morale-boosting point in Glasgow and saw Celtic complete a 19th successive league game without defeat.
The first goal was disputed due to a throw-in which went Celtic’s way instead of Hearts’ in the build-up, but there was no denying that the hosts’ pressure and monopoly of the ball ensured they deserved three points.
This was very resolute performance from the Edinburgh club, nonetheless. Their defence and midfield were more organised and disciplined than in many games this season. Celtic attacked constantly throughout the match but could not break down their guests until Commons stroked the vital goal on 63 minutes.
Much of that was down to the excellent Jamie MacDonald, who was only beaten again in stoppage-time when substitute Forrest scored from Georgios Samaras’ pass. The goalkeeper produced a string of saves throughout the 90 minutes and deserved more from his afternoon’s endeavour.
With a squad stretched virtually to breaking point due to injuries, Hearts named only five substitutes and handed 18-year-old midfielder Adam King his first senior start. The game began predictably with Celtic pressing forward. MacDonald sprinted out from his goal to block Commons’ effort and, from the resultant corner, he produced a fine reaction stop to push Anthony Stokes’ first-time shot onto the crossbar.
Hearts’ 4-5-1 formation indicated defending was their priority and MacDonald was again required to save a Commons’ volley low to his left on 16 minutes. Five minutes later, he collected Teemu Pukki’s drive at the opposite post.
Callum Paterson found himself in behind the Celtic defence for a rare opportunity on 25 minutes after dispossessing Virgil van Dijk. He meandered forward rather than driving for goal and was eventually forced back, allowing the hosts to regroup.
If MacDonald’s previous saves had been important, the next one was exquisite. From Commons’ 34th-minute arcing cross, Joe Ledley stooped to head powerfully at goal from six yards. The Hearts goalkeeper instinctively jutted his leg out to stop the ball on the goal line and preserve the blank scoreline.
The interval arrived much to the visitors’ delight. They had been resolute and well organised and deserved to be level, although there was no denying Celtic’s relentless pressure. Callum Tapping was having an outstanding game in midfield, whilst Adam King and Dylan McGowan weren’t far behind. Celtic’s controlling influences were captain Scott Brown and midfielder Kris Commons.
Jamie Walker found himself cautioned for dissent early in the second half, although his protestations that Hearts deserved a corner because his shot was deflected looked well founded. Jamie Hamill was next for a yellow card for handling the ball and is now automatically suspended for St Mirren’s visit to Tynecastle on January 4.
MacDonald parried a rasping drive from Commons on the hour mark as Celtic, with Forrest on as substitute, increased the tempo of play. They moved ahead moments later as Hearts’ resistance finally broke. However, there was an element of controversy about the build-up to the goal.
A Hearts throw-in on the right was awarded to Celtic by referee Euan Norris and the hosts ruthlessly exploited the fact they had possession. The ball was moved inside, Brown threaded a precise through pass to Commons inside the penalty area, and he steadied himself for a composed left-footed finish into the far corner of the net.
Ledley would have doubled the advantage but for another intervention by MacDonald at his left post. Celtic were now stroking the ball around with ease as Hearts remained camped in their own half. MacDonald tipped Commons’ looping header for a corner following Emilio Izaguirre’s cross.
In the final minute, Dylan McGowan’s header from David Smith’s corner was headed off the Celtic goal line by Commons. As Hearts cursed their luck, the league champions broke forward iin stoppage-time for Forrest to take Samaras’ through ball and jink inside Brad McKay to finish calmly.
Celtic (4-3-1-2): Forster; Fisher, Ambrose, Van Dijk, Izaguirre; Biton (Forrest 46), Brown, Ledley; Commons; Pukki (Samaras 71), Stokes. Subs: Zaluska, Balde, Atajic, Henderson, O’Connell.
Hearts (4-5-1): MacDonald; Hamill, McKay, Wilson, McHattie; Walker (Carrick 73), A King, McGowan, Tapping (Nicholson 86), Smith; Paterson. Subs: Hamilton, B King, McGhee.
Referee: Euan Norris.