So much for that suspect defence. Whatever happened at Riccarton on Thursday and Friday was the work of a genius.
Hearts transformed their back line from timid and chaotic to rigid and tenacious in three days. A fragile rearguard at Kilmarnock last Wednesday became the rock-solid foundation for a battling draw at Celtic Park on Saturday. It must have prompted a few smiles of satisfaction as the Hearts team coach pulled away from Parkhead.
Yes, they enjoyed some luck. Yes, Celtic missed several glaring chances - Leigh Griffiths the main culprit – hit a post and had a late effort disallowed for offside. However, it was impossible not to admire the resolve and diligence with which Hearts protected their goal. They arrived in Glasgow’s east end having lost their last three league games, conceding eight goals in the process. Add in the two Kilmarnock scored in the League Cup in midweek and there was justifiable cause to fear the worst.
They were fortunate the scoreline was blank at half-time but in the second half Hearts’ organisation and desire were exceptional. Goalkeeper Neil Alexander and centre-back Igor Rossi particularly stood out. Captain Alim Ozturk was an unused substitute due to a niggling hernia problem.
Celtic recorded 19 shots at goal to Hearts’ four during the 90 minutes. Only five of those home attempts were on target, whereas the visitors didn’t once test the Celtic goalkeeper Craig Gordon. Those statistics underline the overall dominance enjoyed by the league champions in this encounter.
Hearts might have escaped with all three points, though.
Efe Ambrose took Sam Nicholson down in the dying seconds as the winger scampered clear towards goal. Ambrose was red-carded for denying an obvious scoring chance. An away win would have been daylight robbery given Celtic’s control but there was no denying that sheer fight earned Hearts their point.
The Tynecastle side’s previous visit to Parkhead ended in a comprehensive 3-0 defeat in the League Cup last September. This was a more mature display, epitomised in many ways by full-back Callum Paterson. He was cautioned in the first half for taking the legs from James Forrest and survived a second half in which the winger constantly ran at him hoping more fouls would lead to a dismissal. Paterson edged him off the ball each time without conceding a free-kick.
“In my eyes, and the referee’s eyes, they weren’t fouls at all. It was just good defending in a sense. I’m happy it went my way,” said Paterson. “I enjoyed it to an extent. It’s always good to go up against a good player and come out equal. He did well in the first half and I kind of figured him out towards the end of the second half. I knew how to deal with him.
“We haven’t been on a great run of form so it’s good to hold Celtic to a point. We’re showing a bit of maturity. Last year, it might have gone the other way for me and I could’ve ended up getting another yellow card and been sent off. It shows a bit of maturity not getting another booking and just standing up and defending like I know I can.
“We’ve just come up from the Championship so it’s a bit of an overstatement to say we’re going to win the league or anything like that. We’re doing well and we’re just looking to carry it on.”
Robbie Neilson, the Hearts head coach, had worked with his coaching staff to improve defending as well as holding detailed talks with his players. The effort certainly paid off, despite an uneasy opening half in which centre-back Blazej Augustyn looked especially nervous. Griffiths wasted two free headers, Forrest’s volley crashed off Alexander’s left post, and the goalkeeper produced vital stops to deny Griffiths on three occasions.
“I thought we rode our luck in the first half but you have to do that at Parkhead,” admitted Neilson. “The crowd get behind Celtic and they make it hard. We could’ve been 3-0 down by half-time. We defended really well in the second half, we sat a little deep but the only disappointment is we didn’t break as well as we can with the pace we’ve got. I thought we were a wee bit tentative.
“Our two strikers sat a wee bit deeper because we hoped to exploit the pace we have with our wide players. At times we did but we didn’t pick the right pass. That comes with experience and a bit of bravery.
“It’s about trying to get points. We came here last year and lost 3-0, so we’ve improved since then. Callum Paterson got a tough time last year against Anthony Stokes and Emilio Izaguirre. On Saturday he got booked after 20 minutes and he uses his knowledge to see himself through the game. Yes, he rode his luck a bit here and there but he didn’t give the referee a chance to give him a second card. I was pleased with that.”
Paterson was protected by Hearts debutant Arnaud Djoum for the final ten minutes. He replaced Jamie Walker and played on the right of midfield ahead of Paterson. His energy and experience helped the visitors see the game out.
Neilson also revealed his admiration for Ambrose for his late red card, which came moments after a likely match-winning strike from Griffiths was disallowed for offside. “I think Ambrose was very professional in what he did. It was a good one for our young boys to see. It was 0-0 in the 92nd minute, you take a bad touch and your man is through. You take man and ball if you can, if you can’t do that then you take the man. Ambrose did that and saved his team a point. Okay, he got a red card but it shows the experience he’s got.”
Ronny Deila wasn’t quite so amused. The Celtic manager knew his team deserved more from the game given their pressure and countless scoring opportunities. With Fenerbahce due at Parkhead on European business on Thursday, it was a frustrating way to prepare.
“I think disappointed is the wrong word. I’m irritated because our performance was good, and you can’t create more than we did in the first half,” he bemoaned. “I don’t think they had a chance in the whole game, apart from maybe at the end when we got the red card, and that wasn’t really a goal chance.
“We probably had about 70 per cent possession and created a lot of chances, but we could talk about that all day long. It’s about scoring goals and we didn’t do that.”