HEARTS stepped closer to the elite of European football with a comfortable victory over SPL leaders Celtic, ensuring a home win over Aberdeen the following Wednesday would secure second place and a Champions League Qualifying spot – a victory they subsequently delivered.
Their first victory over Celtic in this memorable campaign could hardly have been better timed. The result came when they needed it most, as Rangers had closed to within a point of them a day earlier, and when Celtic needed it least, having secured the title on the last occasion the clubs met.
Celtic could have scored before and soon after Hearts’ early double, and were still plugging away in the final minutes, when Stilian Petrov brought out an exceptional save from Craig Gordon in the Hearts goal.
The fact that the Bulgarian midfielder had come off the bench, as had John Hartson and Stephen Pearson, was testament to Celtic’s intent on getting something from the game as well as their squad depth. His introduction, however, came after Hearts had scored a vital third goal.
That decisive goal was started and ended by Paul Hartley, who had already got on the scoresheet himself as well as creating the opener. The Scotland midfielder broke up a Celtic attack with a simple header, then passed to Bruno Aguiar, who fed Deividas Cesnauskis on the right flank. The winger advanced towards halfway before squaring to Hartley, whose through ball to Roman Bednar just beat the offside flag. The big Czech ran in towards Artur Boruc before slotting the ball low to the goalkeeper’s left and into the net.
It was the manner in which Hearts achieved that three-goal advantage as much as the scoreline itself that must have made Celtic realise there was no way back, for the home side played with a poise and a collective self-discipline.
Those virtues would have been tested, had Stephen McManus given Celtic the lead in the opening minutes after finding himself unmarked in the Hearts box. Gordon saved his shot, however, and within minutes the centre-back was on the scoresheet at the wrong end, redirecting a curling free-kick from Hartley straight into his own net. Three minutes later Celtic were two down, this time after Hartley scored direct from an award given for a foul by Stan Varga on Bednar. Having been given permission to proceed, Hartley took advantage of Celtic’s slack defence to score to Boruc’s left.
A low drive from Rudi Skacel came close to making it 3-0, the ball rebounding off the Pole’s right post, and the excitement died away for a while after that until shortly before the break. It was then that Roy Keane found himself through on Gordon after a Shunsuke Nakamura cross was nudged on by Pressley, but the former Manchester United player failed to make clean contact and the keeper collected comfortably.
Hearts were not yet comfortable at that stage, but they were after Bednar’s goal, and some time before the end everyone in the ground had accepted the outcome.
Hearts secured the runners-up spot with a nervy home victory over Aberdeen the following midweek, a Paul Hartley penalty securing them a prestigious Champions League Qualifying place.
Hearts: Gordon, Neilson, Fyssas, Pressley, Hartley, Tall, Cesnauskis, Aguiar, Jankauskas, Bednar, Skacel.