A DOGGED and defiant Hearts display earned a welcome point at Parkhead.
The hosts spent the majority of the game pressing their opponents back but goalkeeper Neil Alexander and his defence showed impressive resolve to prevent the champions scoring.
Celtic finished the match with ten men after Efe Ambrose was red carded in stoppage-time for denying Sam Nicholson a clear scoring chance. By then, Hearts’ work was pretty much done. Leigh Griffiths passed up a number of scoring chances, particularly in the first half, and the Edinburgh club rode their luck on more than one occasion. Nonetheless, after some sub-standard defensive displays in recent weeks, they were delighted to leave Glasgow with a clean sheet.
Head coach Robbie Neilson made four changes after Hearts’ midweek League Cup win at Kilmarnock. He most notably left out captain Alim Ozturk, possibly due to a niggling injury. Restored to the side were Juanma, Juwon Oshaniwa, Miguel Pallardo and Jamie Walker. Celtic made seven alterations after eliminating Raith Rovers as Emilio Izaguirre, Nir Bitton, Griffiths, Tomas Rogic, Dedryck Boyata, Mickael Lustig and James Forrest all returned.
Celtic needed a win to keep pace with Aberdeen at the top of the Ladbrokes Premiership. They seized control of the game but were to pass up several good scoring chances in the first half. They threatened in the opening minutes through both Scott Brown and Commons with the Hearts defence looking jittery in possession of the ball. Then came a 25-yard free-kick from Griffiths which goalkeeper Alexander did well to beat away.
When Hearts attacked, they found the Celtic back line just as indecisive as their own. Juanma curled a right-footed shot towards the top corner on 13 minutes but saw the ball rise narrowly over Craig Gordon’s crossbar. The hosts knew their best method of defence was attack and they immediately came forward once again. On 16 minutes, Forrest’s vicious volley struck the inside of Alexander’s left post and bounced clear.
Celtic were controlling the game and enjoying plenty of the ball, much of it inside Hearts’ half and down the home side’s left - where Forrest and Izaguirre were giving Callum Paterson a hard afternoon. Forrest’s clever through pass found Rogic but his first-time left-footed attempt was angled across the face of goal and wide. Then came another fine opening when Izaguirre’s cross found Griffths 18 yards out for a free header, however the Scotland forward was off target.
The next chance came courtesy of Blazej Augustyn. He tried to head clear a high ball into the Hearts penalty area but succeeded only in nodding it backwards towards his own goal. Griffiths was again lurking unmarked, although his tame header was gathered by Alexander. The goalkeeper instantly aimed a verbal tirade in Augustyn’s direction hoping to waken the Pole up.
Alexander was called upon to deny Griffiths again on 33 minutes. The striker fastened on to the ball inside the box after Izaguirre’s shot ricocheted towards him, but Alexander smothered the chance. He then held a low drive from Bitton and and watched an angled attempt from Forrest swing away from goal. At half-time, Celtic were cursing their profligacy in front of goal although it seemed only a matter of time until they found the net.
Hearts fashioned the first chance of the second half when Igor Rossi headed Walker’s deep cross from the left into the side netting. Their opponents tried to use Forrest at every opportunity. The winger ran at Paterson repeatedly with the ball hoping a foul would lead to the defender being sent off. He was booked in the first half for fouling Forrest and knew he was now treading a thin line. Each time he leaned into Forrest, the home crowd howled for a foul but referee Kevin Clancy rightly let play continue.
Indeed, the Celtic supporters were growing frustrated due to their team’s inability to break Hearts’ resistance. Their players began snatching at shots and, with each passing minute, the visitors’ confidence and belief grew. They were guilty of defending very deeply, though, after changing to a 4-5-1 formation with 15 minutes left.
Recent signing Arnaud Djoum made his debut as a replacement for Jamie Walker and the last ten minutes saw Hearts pinned back. In the centre of their defence, Rossi was as solid as anyone. Alexander was just as assured and held another attempt from Griffiths as the match entered its last five minutes.
After Griffiths’ effort was disallowed for offside, the Celtic fans streamed out of the stadium sensing their team weren’t to find that elusive goal. They missed Ambrose’s late dismissal for tripping Nicholson as the winger homed in on goal. That was just about the last act of the afternoon. The Hearts fans remained and rejoiced at full-time after their side had taken a hard-earned point in Glasgow.
Celtic (4-2-3-1): Gordon; Lustig, Boyata, Ambrose, Izaguirre; Brown, Bitton; Commons, Rogic, Forrest; Griffiths.
75: Ciftci for Rogic
Unused subs: Bailly, Blackett, Mackay-Steven, Janko, Johansen, Tierney.
Hearts (4-2-3-1): Alexander; Paterson, Augustyn, Rossi, Oshaniwa; Gomis, Pallardo; Nicholson, Sow, Walker; Juanma.
65: Buaben for Sow
77: Reilly for Juanma
80: Djoum for Walker
Unused subs: Hamilton, Ozturk, McGhee, Swanson.
Referee: Kevin Clancy.