FIGHTING on the training ground hindered Celtic’s build-up to this Utilita Energy League Cup quarter-final.
In the end, the fighting spirit of Leigh Griffiths propelled them into the semi-finals despite a valiant effort from Hearts at Tynecastle.
Griffiths scored his team’s first goal and created the second for Tom Rogic with two moments of individual brilliance.
Arnaud Djoum’s first goal in maroon proved a consolation in stoppage-time, and a token for Hearts’ efforts in running the League Cup holders close.
They last beat Celtic in the Scottish Cup semi-final of 2012 but competed for the vast majority of this encounter.
Griffiths produced that something special when it was required, scoring his 12th goal of the season to open the scoring on 72 minutes. The former Hibs striker certainly milked the moment in front of the Tynecastle support.
Ten minutes later, he set up substitute Rogic for a close-range finish which effectively ended the game as a contest. Hearts looked dead on their feet at that stage and were frustrated at perceived slack defending which allowed Griffiths to cause damage. They recovered for a late rally but Djoum’s header in injury-time came too late to change the course of the game.
Players kicking lumps out of one another in training wasn’t the best preparation from Celtic’s perspective. Yet despite Nadir Ciftci attacking team-mate Emilio Izaguirre yesterday at Lennoxtown, manager Ronny Deila saw his plans worsen still moments from kick-off. Captain Scott Brown had to be replaced by James Forrest in the starting line-up, although thankfully not because he’d been clobbered by a colleague. He suffered an apparent knee injury during the pre-match warm-up and pulled out. Gary Mackay-Steven also missed out despite being named amongst the visiting substitutes. His place on the bench was taken by Tyler Blackett.
The game began at a predictably frenetic speed with Celtic enjoying plenty midfield possession. Hearts seemed content to sit back, allow the visitors to have the ball, then try to spring into attack with quick balls forward. They carried a physical presence with the giants of Osman Sow and Juanma up top, but there was also plenty flair to utilise in wide areas through Sam Nicholson and Billy King.
Celtic were also dangerous in the flanks and put a series of crosses and corners into the Hearts penalty area. The Tynecastle full-backs Callum Paterson and Jordan McGhee were severely tested by Stuart Armstrong and Forrest respectively. The deliveries didn’t yield many clear chances, however, with Blazej Augustyn’s head meeting many of them. Kris Commons took advantage of some sloppy defending to hit a 20-yard drive which sailed over Neil Alexander’s crossbar on 26 minutes.
Sow had the beating of his marker, Jozo Simunovic, in terms of physical strength when Hearts got into opposition territory. The 21-year-old Croatian found himself outmuscled for the third time as the half-hour approached but Sow’s subsequent left-footed shot trundled wide of target. With a vociferous crowd behind them, the hosts grew in confidence. The quick balls up to Sow and Juanma began to look fruitful as the attacking pair unsettled visiting defenders time after time. McGhee tried his luck from 25 yards with an effort which spun away from Craig Gordon’s goal and the interval arrived without a breakthrough.
Robbie Neilson, the Hearts coach, introduced Jamie Walker for King early in the second half. There was a lucky escape moments later, though, as indecision in the home defence allowed Kris Commons to fasten on to a loose ball inside the box. His right-footed shot skewed wide of goal but it was clear Celtic were trying to increase the tempo of their play in the hope of forcing a goal in front of the 1,480 travelling fans.
It was the home fans who erupted in anger on 57 minutes when Nir Bitton fouled Nicholson in a congested area of midfield. The Israeli was cautioned for a first-half foul on King and had been penalised for two further late tackles, yet he still avoided a second yellow from referee John Beaton. There was further frustration for Hearts when Sow flicked Paterson’s headed knockdown past Gordon and into the net, only to be flagged offside.
Rogic’s arrival as a substitute had a positive impact on Celtic. His run and cutback from the left found Commons, who failed to connect with the ball. From a similar position, Armstrong scampered into dangerous territory for a low cross which McGhee cleared almost on his own goal line.
The visitors’ pressure continued and eventually a goal arrived on 72 minutes. Stefan Johansen won a loose ball in midfield, which he prodded through towards Griffiths. Until then, the Scotland striker had been anonymous and starved of genuine chances. This time he decided to create on all by himself. In a flash, he dribbled at pace past both Igor Rossi and McGhee to plant a low finish out of Neil Alexander’s reach with his left foot.
His celebrations were extensive, for he knew the timing of his goal was vital to his club’s chances of reaching the semis. There was also considerable joy in the away team’s technical area as Deila and his assistants, John Collins and John Kennedy, erupted in delight. They had more cause to celebrate on 82 minutes when Rogic secured victory. Griffiths’ driving run down the right ended with a low cross which the Australian clipped into the far corner of the net from close range. And 2-0 would have become 3-0 had Mikael Lustig not sent a free header wide from Commons’ free-kick.
There was a late free-kick from Paterson which went close before substitute Djoum headed his first Hearts goal from Walker’s corner. That was in stoppage-time and too late to change the final result. Paterson and Rossi were amongst the hosts’ best players but Griffiths ultimately made the difference. Celtic were content to leave Edinburgh having negotiated their way through a tricky tie. They join Ross County and St Johnstone in the semi-finals.
Hearts (4-4-2): Alexander; Paterson, Augustyn, Rossi, McGhee; Nicholson, Buaben (Djoum 81), Gomis, King (Walker 53); Juanma (Reilly 87), Sow.
Unused subs: Hamilton, Swanson, L Smith, Zanatta.
Celtic (4-2-3-1): Gordon; Lustig, Boyata, Simunovic, Izaguirre; Johansen, Bitton; Forrest (Rogic 59), Commons, Armstrong; Griffiths (Ciftci 83).
Unused subs: Bailly, Ambrose, Blackett, Tierney, McGregor.
Referee: John Beaton.