Hearts remain a work in progress after last night’s League Cup loss at Celtic Park.
They have evolved quickly under the new regime of Ann Budge, Craig Levein and Robbie Neilson. Nonetheless, a 3-0 defeat by Celtic proves they are, as expected, still a bit away from where they ultimately want to be.
John Guidetti’s first Celtic goal, a Kris Commons penalty and an Adam Eckersley own goal took the hosts into the quarter-finals, where they will meet Partick Thistle. The result eased some of the pressure on manager Ronny Deila, who had seen his side win only one of their previous seven matches prior to this tie.
For all that Hearts were dominated by a stronger team, head coach Robbie Neilson was rightly unhappy with chances his side squandered which could have changed the game. Jamie Walker struck the crossbar with the score at 1-0 late in the first half. Then, after the restart, Osman Sow blasted a penalty kick over Craig Gordon’s crossbar. That miss in particular rankled with Neilson after the final whistle.
A minute later, Alim Ozturk barged Guidetti to the ground inside the penalty box and Commons drove the resultant spot-kick ball past Neil Alexander. That doubled the scoreline to 2-0 and put the tie beyond Hearts. Eckersley’s own goal – an attempt to chest a cross back to Alexander which went wrong – merely summed up the visitors’ evening.
This was a match in which they would gauge their progress since exiting administration and surging to the top of the SPFL Championship. It must be said they have recovered a remarkable amount of ground since being relegated from the Premiership in May, and there is still work to do.
“We’ve defended well all season, it’s been one of our plus points so far,” Neilson pointed out. “We knew we would need to be good defensively again. At the first goal, we make a bit of a mistake. At the second goal, we make a mistake, and at the third goal we make a mistake. If you do that coming here then you’re going to lose games.
“On the positive side, at 1-0 down we hit the crossbar. We get the penalty and then miss that. We know that, at a place like Celtic Park, if you take two chances then they need to score three. We didn’t do it so we didn’t deserve to get anything out of the game.
“At least Sow had the strength to go up and take the penalty but that’s the small margins in football. At 1-0, if we score the penalty then it’s a different game. We miss it then Celtic go up the park and get a penalty and score it. The game hinges on that moment.”
Sow’s penalty lacked nothing in power but the Swede, leaning back as he struck the ball, saw his effort fly into the stand at a sparsely-populated Parkhead. He walked away with his head in his hands. “I think there was a lot of conviction in it. It’s still coming down,” smirked Neilson.
“He went up there and smashed it. I’d rather someone went up and hit it with a bit of conviction that go up there and fluff it or try and chip it or something. I’ve got no issues with him. The boys rallied round him at the end and he’s a big character in the team. We move on. That’s the way football is. We’ll miss some penalties and we’ll score some.
“I was pleased with a lot of aspects of the game. I thought we passed it well when we did have possession. They caused us a problem on the left, which is always going to happen because they have quality players. We kept going and I thought we were disciplined. We just didn’t do enough at the end of the day.”
Walker’s strike rebounded off the bar after Emilio Izaguirre had played a casual backpass towards Gordon. “It’s a good opportunity. He struck it well but it didn’t go in. It’s a great strike, half an inch and it’s in but that’s football,” said Neilson.
“We just need to take it on the chin and move on. At the end of the day, the League Cup wasn’t a priority for us. The league is the main one and we have Livingston on Sunday so we start preparing for that now.”
Izaguirre and Anthony Stokes combined to torment the Hearts right-back Callum Paterson down Celtic’s left in the first half. It was from Izaguirre’s wicked cross that the first goal came on 23 minutes. Danny Wilson’s clearance appeared to come off the shoulder and Guidetti dispatched the dropping ball into the net without a second thought.
Referee Willie Collum awarded Hearts a soft penalty ten minutes into the second half as Sow fell under pressure from Virgil van Dijk. A minute after the striker’s miss, Ozturk bundled Guidetti over at the opposite end and Commons lashed the resultant spot-kick home. Five minutes later, Eckersley stooped and chested home the third, again from a left-sided cross.
Hearts midfielder Prince Buaben felt he and his colleagues gave a reasonable account of themselves. “I don’t think anyone is disappointed,” he said. “We showed good character against a good side and I thought the boys did themselves proud. Our main priority is winning on Sunday.”
On Sow’s penalty miss, he said: “Os is a good player. If he scores the penalty, who knows, we might have won the game. It happens so we have to move on. He had his head down in the dressing room but the manager told him to forget about it. We need him for Sunday. I think after the manager said that, hopefully he forgot about it.”
Deila expressed relief at Celtic’s first clean sheet since August 13 and offered some encouraging words for Hearts supporters. “I liked the way Hearts played,” he said. “They came to Celtic Park, they had a pattern and they were offensive and attacking. They knew they were going to get trouble but they did it and they learned something from the game. They will take it back to the Championship and develop.
“I think they will come up next year and you will see that they already have a pattern that they will use to control games.”