Against any other opponent in the Premiership, a performance as bold, adventurous and aggressive as the one Hearts produced on Saturday would surely have yielded victory.
On the balance of play, Celtic, who ultimately ended up with a two-goal cushion, couldn’t have protested too vigorously had their visitors left Parkhead with something tangible to show for their efforts. Certainly there was a feeling of bewilderment in the Hearts camp that they had somehow gone in 2-1 behind at half-time after a first half in which they had dominated long periods.
The Tynecastle side would have fancied their chances of fighting back if they’d been able to maintain their first-half standard after the break, but the cheap concession of an early second-half goal took the sting out of their challenge and gave Celtic, who had been rattled by Hearts’ strong start, renewed confidence to see out a 3-1 victory and make it 15 home league games in a row unbeaten against the team from the Capital.
In the end, the difference proved to be a £12 million attacker, with Patrick Roberts, the on-loan teenager who joined Manchester City from Fulham in an eight-figure transfer fee last summer, producing a sublime match-winning double after Gary Mackay-Steven had cancelled out Jamie Walker’s brilliant early opener for Hearts on his 100th league appearance for his boyhood club.
“Roberts was alright whenever he came in on his left foot but other than that I didn’t think he did a lot in the game,” Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson said. “He’s an expensive player and Celtic can afford to bring these players in so you just have to try and negate them, and we did for the majority of the game.”
Much of that owed to the adoption of a 3-5-2 formation from Hearts. This was the first time they had taken such an approach since losing 2-0 to Hibs at Easter Road almost a year ago. Eyebrows were raised in some quarters, especially considering the wing-backs were Sam Nicholson, a swashbuckling attacker not particularly renowned for his defensive strength, and Juwon Oshaniwa, the confidence-shorn Nigerian who hadn’t featured at all in any of his side’s previous five matches. “To go and press them and get after them,” was the reason Neilson gave for the change in formation. “I think they struggle when you put pressure on them and we showed that.”
Certainly no-one in the Celtic camp was of a mind to argue that Hearts had them on toast in the early exchanges. After Walker’s brilliant finish high past Craig Gordon from the edge of the box in the fifth minute, the visitors looked equipped to kick on and finally end their nine-year wait for a win in Glasgow’s east end. “Hearts were good,” said Ronny Deila, the Celtic manager. “There was a very high tempo in the game and they pressed us really hard and high. It took us a little bit of time to adjust to that.”
Celtic had been in unconvincing form of late and Hearts clearly scented an opportunity to capitalise on the league leaders’ perceived frailties. However, as so often happens when these two fierce rivals collide, the Glasgow side were roused by the big-game atmosphere and went on to produce one of their best performances for some time.
“Hearts started well and were knocking the ball about really well and showed they’re a good team but I think we showed good character coming back from 1-0 down to get the win,” said Mackay-Steven. “Big games like this are where you have to show what you’re all about and after going behind early we could have sat down and let them run over the top of us – but we certainly didn’t do that.”
Celtic’s 14th minute equaliser came from their first spell of pressure in the match. Seconds after Hearts goalkeeper Neil Alexander had done brilliantly to push away a Leigh Griffiths free-kick, Mackay-Steven drilled in a low shot from the edge of the box after Juanma could only head a Kieran Tierney cross into his path.
Hearts didn’t let this setback knock them out of their stride, however, and they had a chance to restore their lead two minutes later when John Souttar’s long diagonal cross found Oshaniwa all on his own in the box but the Nigerian had something of a nosebleed in front of goal and made a mess of trying to control it on his chest, allowing Gordon to gather.
Alexander then made another good save to deny Griffiths before Arnaud Djoum, who was excellent in the Hearts engine room, rolled a low angled shot wide from 12 yards out after Oshaniwa and Walker had combined to help him into a dangerous area. Alim Ozturk then curled a 25-yard free-kick off the top of the bar after Juanma had been fouled by Scott Brown. The Scotland captain was booked for this, although Hearts felt it should have been his second yellow card of the game after an earlier two-footed challenge on the Spanish striker somehow went unpunished by referee Bobby Madden.
Hearts threatened again in the 34th minute when Juanma blasted over after meeting a Nicholson cross at the near post. The Tynecastle side were made to pay a minute later when Roberts ran on to a lovely disguised pass from Tom Rogic and burst into the right side of the box before dinking a deft angled finish over Alexander and in at the far post from just outside the six-yard box.
Tempers flared in the 38th minute after Oshaniwa and Rogic clashed heads following a reckless aerial challenge by the Hearts man. Prince Buaben, who was otherwise magnificent for Hearts, and Griffiths were booked for their part in the melee and Oshaniwa was cautioned after receiving treatment and returning to the action with a head bandage. In light of his struggles in recent months, the Nigerian could be satisfied with his afternoon’s work before being harshly sent off in stoppage time.
Right on half-time Alexander did superbly to save another goalbound free kick from Griffiths. Hearts’ hopes of fighting back were dealt a major blow three minutes into the second half when Roberts took a Stefan Johansen lay-off outside the box and burst into the danger area to curl a low shot beyond Rossi and Alexander.
Although demoralised at how a game in which they had contributed so much had slipped away from them, Hearts still enjoyed their fair share of possession in the second half, but a couple of late headers from Ozturk and sub Abiola Dauda were as close as they came to getting a goal back. The visitors’ sense of injustice at taking nothing from the game was heightened in stoppage-time when Oshaniwa was dismissed after receiving a harsh second yellow card despite appearing to win the ball in a challenge with Nir Bitton.
Although the defeat – their second in succession – did little for Hearts’ hopes of catching second-place Aberdeen, Neilson took heart from a strong performance, epitomised by the impressive work of the central-midfield trio of Djoum, Buaben and Perry Kitchen. “I thought we were the better team for large periods,” said the head coach. “We pressed it well, dominated a lot of the game and had some good opportunities but gave away some sloppy goals. When you go to Parkhead you’ve got to score. We had chances to be ahead but we didn’t put them away so instead we found ourselves behind at half-time and didn’t get the reward we felt we should have got. All in all, I didn’t think there was a negative in the team. The only negative was the scoreline.”