Craig Levein insists if Hearts show the same diligence and resilience as they did against Celtic and they will be rewarded over the coming weeks.
Reeling from a last-minute 2-1 home defeat against the Premiership leaders, the Hearts manager praised his players’ tireless effort with ten men.
Jamie Brandon’s first-half red card left the hosts with a numerical disadvantage at 1-0 down. They equalised through Oliver Bozanic’s penalty before Odsonne Edouard produced a winner in the second minute of stoppage time.
Hearts showed determined qualities to keep Celtic at bay under pressure in the second half. Levein is keen to harness that attitude with a Scottish Cup quarter-final against Partick Thistle looming on Monday.
“It can be a cruel game at times,” he said. “To lose it when I felt we had coped with just about everything Celtic threw at us was difficult to take. Give some credit to Celtic, kept going right to the end and managed to nick the win.
“I think we dug deep for the whole match, started well, had the better opportunities and had Celtic pinned back. I was happy with the way things were going until we fell behind and then the sending-off.
“At moments like this, we try to take the positives and take confidence into the next run of fixtures. I told the players after the game that, if we do all the things we did here on a weekly basis, we will get our rewards.
“You don’t always get what you deserve but the commitment, the running, the diligence in defending apart from that one moment, all of those things were good. If we get that in the coming weeks, we’ll be fine. The players were so diligent in defending. Yes, Celtic had opportunities but not really clear-cut opportunities. The defence and goalkeeper played well, apart from the last seconds.”
Brandon received a straight red card for leading with an arm in a challenge on Celtic’s Jeremy Toljan on 44 minutes. Levein had no complaints about referee Steven McLean’s decision. “I could see why Steven gave it. Jamie’s elbow is high but I’m not sure how much contact there is, whether it hit him in the face.”
Hearts must wait to learn the extent of striker Steven Naismith’s knee problem, which led to him being replaced by Bozanic at half-time. “Naisy’s knee was irritating him and he wasn’t feeling free to run properly. I didn’t want to take any risks,” admitted Levein.
Sean Clare was shunted to right-back for the second half and Levein refused to criticise the midfielder for Celtic’s winning goal. “It was difficult night for him, playing out of position for long periods. He was really good,” added Levein. “He is a forward-thinking player. It just takes a fraction of a second to think something is going to happen. We thought Sean was going to win the header [from Scott Brown’s cross].”
Returning Celtic manager Neil Lennon savoured victory at Tynecastle Park just hours after replacing the departed Brendan Rodgers. “I’m ecstatic,” he said. “Tynecastle is a difficult place. We should have made more of the game but we shot ourselves in the foot and gave Hearts something to hold on to with the penalty.
“We kept going, we put a quality ball in for the goal which we didn’t do enough. But I can’t knock the players and I can’t thank them enough. It’s a brilliant win and psychologically huge.
“I’ve been here with Hibs a few times and I know how well-drilled Hearts are with Craig. They have plenty heart and fight, good defenders and the big boy up front [Uche Ikpeazu] is a handful.”