MOST defeats at Celtic Park carry few positives for Scottish teams. This one had many for Hearts, although it should not be misconstrued as purely a hard-luck story.
Kris Commons and James Forrest scored the goals which gave Celtic a deserved win based on their total control of play. Yet the visitors were everything they have not been in many matches this season.
Organised, disciplined, resilient and tactically aware, this was possibly Hearts’ best defensive display of the season given the relentless pressure they endured. Their 4-5-1 shape kept the dominant hosts at bay for much of the match. Dylan McGowan would even have snatched an 89th-minute equaliser had Kris Commons, scorer of Celtic’s first goal, not cleared his header off the goal line. Seconds later, substitute James Forrest scored to secure victory in Celtic’s 19th successive league game without defeat.
Hearts gave it everything, with Callum Tapping enjoying his best performance in a maroon shirt and 18-year-old Adam King excelling on his first senior start. Neither eclipsed goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald, whose series of saves were once again the difference between a defeat and a trouncing. Celtic put seven past MacDonald in the Scottish Cup earlier this month but there was no chance of a repetition this time.
Celtic’s squad is vastly superior and that showed in the balance of play, for they spent almost all of the 90 minutes in attack mode. Almost the entire second 45 minutes were played in the opposition half of the field. Their two goals were thoroughly justified, although the first was disputed by Hearts because of a throw-in during the build up which should have been given to the visitors.
Manager Gary Locke outlined the pride he felt at his young team’s performance. He named only five substitutes rather than use players – like Angus Beith – who only left school in the summer to go full-time at Riccarton. If he was making a point to the Scottish Football authorities about his lack of resources, it must have been noted.
“I’m proud of the boys. We had to learn a harsh lesson from the last time we played Celtic,” said Locke. “But I thought that they were, to a man, fantastic. They kept their shape really well. Dylan McGowan was unlucky at the end with a header and the game-plan would’ve worked a treat.
“We tried to contain Celtic. Obviously the last time at Tynecastle we gave them far too much space on the ball. We tried to be a bit more compact and I thought the boys did that brilliantly. On the counter-attack, I thought we looked quite dangerous. In the final third we just need to take a shot on a couple of occasions. Certainly, it was a far better performance. I asked the players to restore a bit of pride, after the last game, and we certainly got that.
“It is difficult place to go to but we are not going to stay in the league by winning at Parkhead. It is the games coming up, they are big for us. Hopefully we will get one or two players back from injury and, if they give us that commitment, we won’t be too far away.”
The battling qualities and industry of both Tapping and King shone through in Hearts’ tight three-man central midfield. They pressed, harried and tackled Celtic’s Scott Brown, Joe Ledley and Nir Biton – the latter was ineffective and replaced by Forrest at half-time. Dylan McGowan completed the triumvirate, playing slightly deeper than the other two as a protective shield in front of the back four. Locke was delighted with how his engine room performed.
“That’s the performance we’ve been waiting for from Callum. We know he’s a good player,” he said. “Adam has been waiting patiently for his chance. He’s done reasonably well in the under-20s. We’ve been on a run where we haven’t been getting results so you’re always wary about putting a younger player into the team. You would rather put him into a team that’s playing with confidence. Because of injury problems at the weekend, we didn’t have any other option. I thought he went in and handled himself brilliantly.”
Celtic huffed and puffed throughout the first 45 minutes but could not break Hearts’ resistance. The closest they came was when Anthony Stokes’ first-time effort was pushed on to the crossbar by MacDonald. The Hearts goalkeeper produced other impressive saves from Commons, Teemu Pukki and Joe Ledley.
In the second half, Commons slotted home from Scott Brown’s through pass. Hearts were denied a throw-in just seconds earlier, though, when McGowan slid in and knocked the ball off an opponent. That irked many of the visiting players. When McGowan’s late header from David Smith’s corner was headed off the goal line by Commons, it was clear this would not be Hearts’ afternoon. That was confirmed when substitute Forrest struck a classy second in stoppage-time.
“MacDonald had a fine game for Hearts,” admitted the Celtic assistant manager, Johan Mjallby. “We could have taken more chances but we showed good patience, especially in the second half. James Forrest gave us a spark when he came on and I thought we controlled game. If you don’t kill games your opponent can get one or two chances and Hearts got one when Commons cleared off the line.
“The bonus was having James back from injury, he made the difference. A fit James Forrest would always start every game so it’s a priority to keep him fit as he’s a special player. Likewise, even if Commons isn’t having the best game, you want to keep him on the pitch. He is always a threat in every area of the pitch.
“We did exceptionally well in the Champions League last year but we weren’t happy with the league form. This year we are unbeaten and that’s a good showing from us. Hearts made it hard for us so we are happy with three points and being unbeaten.”