LEIGH GRIFFITHS’ first Celtic goal and a late strike from substitute Teemu Pukki secured a hard-earned win for the Glasgow club at Tynecastle.
In addition, goalkeeper Fraser Forster broke the Scottish league record for the length of time without conceding a goal on what was an extremely efficient afternoon for the visitors.
Hearts looked a much-improved side from the one which lost 7-0 against the same opponents in December, it must be said. Nonetheless, they created little in terms of clear scoring chances.
Former Hibs striker Griffiths lashed the game’s first goal after 57 minutes having twisted and turned to drive a low finish into the corner of the net. It was just reward for Celtic’s dominance at that stage. Pukki added the second in stoppage time to put a more convincing slant on the scoreline.
Hearts had pressed forward more as the game progressed looking for an equaliser as the game progressed but fashioned precious few openings. They proved themselves a much more difficult team to break down, though, which was a pre-match aim for manager Gary Locke.
Against an attack-minded Celtic team, Locke adopted a cautious 4-5-1 formation with Callum Paterson and Kevin McHattie reinstated after suspension.
The early exchanges saw the visitors exercising good ball retention and sending several decent deliveries into the Hearts penalty area. Anthony Stokes’ run and shot on 21 minutes was their clearest opportunity until Virgil van Dijk curled a free-kick just past a post two minutes later. Then came a first-time Scott Brown attempt which soared high after Griffiths’ drive was blocked by Danny Wilson.
Jamie Hamill was involved in many midfield challenges but took a chance by kicking out at Van Dijk after a late tackle by the Dutchman. Hearts broke clear at that moment but Paul McCallum, making his home debut, was penalised for barging into Stefan Johansen as Callum Paterson’s low cross arrived in the penalty area.
The 31-minute mark was the moment Forster set a new Scottish league record. He bettered Bobby Clark Aberdeen record of 1155 minutes without conceding back in season 1970/71.
At the opposite end, the hosts continued their concerted pressure. Kris Commons blasted a vicious drive inches over the Hearts crossbar before delivering a corner which Van Dijk glanced similarly close.
Ryan Stevenson stung Forster’s palms at the start of the second half before Celtic again piled forward. Commons’ free-kick was headed goalwards by Stokes at the back post but MacDonald produced an important parry. That only delayed the inevitable, however.
On 57 minutes, the visitors broke forward when Stokes loping ball found Griffiths. He shrugged off Sam Nicholson and twisted and turned to create space despite close attention from the Hearts captain Wilson. His finish, a driven left-footer from around 16 yards, was exquisite and left MacDonald helpess as the ball nestled in the corner of the net.
Griffiths headed straight for the Hearts fans after scoring, which prompted an angry reaction some as the tension threatened to spill over. Police intervened and order was restored as the travelling fans broke into full voice.
The remainder of the second half saw both teams cancel one another out for long spells. Jason Holt returned to first-team action in the closing stages after three months out with a broken metatarsal. Then came another fine save from MacDonald, touching a shot from Celtic substitute Derk Boerrigter on to his crossbar.
In stoppage-time, another two of the visiting substitutes combined to complete the victory. Amido Balde dispossessed Hamill and fed Pukki inside for a composed finish into the same corner where Griffiths had planted the first goal.
Hearts (4-4-2): MacDonald; McGowan, McKay, Wilson, McHattie; Paterson, Stevenson (King 82), Hamill, Robinson (Holt 82), Nicholson; McCallum (Carrick 52). Subs: Ridgers, Oliver, McGhee, Beith.
Celtic (4-4-2): Forster; Matthews, Ambrose, Van Dijk, Mulgrew; Brown, Biton, Johansen (Boerrigter 83), Commons; Stokes (Balde 89), Griffiths (Pukki 68). Subs: Zaluska, Samaras, Fisher, Herron.
Referee: Kevin Clancy.