Hearts can’t be accused of relinquishing their long undefeated record at Tynecastle without a fight after they gave Celtic plenty to think about before eventually succumbing to the superior quality of the newly-crowned champions.
Buoyed by memories of their sensational 4-0 victory over Brendan Rodgers’ team earlier in the season and steeled by the knowledge that they hadn’t lost on their own pitch since Aberdeen triumphed in Gorgie in the last game in front of the old main stand a year ago today, Craig Levein’s team started on the front foot, temporarily knocked the Glasgow side out of their stride and, for a good period of the first half, looked equipped to complete a home double over Celtic.
Although the approach was as positive and intense as it had been in that memorable triumph in December, this time Hearts were unable to fully capitalise when on top. Last time they doubled their lead within nine minutes of opening the scoring. Yesterday, by contrast, they let Celtic back into it within four minutes of taking the lead through Kyle Lafferty as Dedryck Boyata equalised from a set-piece. The champions eventually went on to seize a degree of control in the second half, with a well-worked goal from Moussa Dembele seven minutes into the second half having the double-edged effect of lifting Celtic and deflating a hitherto fired-up Hearts side. The hosts enjoyed a brief late flurry as they went in search of an equaliser, but it was Celtic who scored again when substitute Scott Sinclair tapped in with the last kick.
“It was a very similar match, although it maybe sounds a bit silly, to the 4-0 win we had here,” said Levein, who lamented the fact his side were unable to score a second goal. “I can’t fault them in terms of following the gameplan. We just didn’t get the breaks when we needed them, like we did the last time. We played with the same intensity and energy, pressed them and put them under pressure. It was hot out there and it was energy-sapping. To play the way we did and press them constantly for as long as we did, it’s tiring. To keep that going, you need goals to boost your confidence.”
The Hearts players had formed a guard of honour for the newly-crowned champions as they emerged from the tunnel, but once the match began, there was no doubting their commitment to making the afternoon as uncomfortable as possible for Brendan Rodgers’ team. The high and aggressive pressing of Don Cowie, Ross Callachan, Joaquim Adao, Steven Naismith and Lewis Moore in midfield, allied to an impressive return from injury for Demetri Mitchell, were key factors in the hosts gaining an early foothold. After a couple of half-chances, Hearts thought they had taken the lead in the 15th minute when John Souttar forced in a Don Cowie corner from close range, but the goal was disallowed. TV replays suggested there was little wrong with it and that it should have stood. “Have you seen it? It’s ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous,” said Levein. “And I have no idea, I can’t even see why he would even penalise anyone.”
Although the manager made a big issue of this poor decision by referee Bobby Madden afterwards, ultimately it didn’t have a significant bearing on the outcome as Hearts went ahead just two minutes later, when Lewis Moore helped a bouncing ball into the path of Lafferty on the right side of the penalty area and the Northern Irishman took a touch before thrashing an emphatic half volley beyond the helpless Scott Bain.
The lead was short-lived, however, as Celtic equalised four minutes later when Boyata ghosted in at the back post to arc home an angled header from Olivier Ntcham’s free-kick. Hearts continued to be competitive, although Souttar had a let-off on the half-hour mark when he was short with a passback to Jon McLaughlin and Moussa Dembele lobbed an effort on to the top of the bar after he had beaten the Hearts goalkeeper to the ball inside the box.
Having been knocked out of their rhythm for much of the first half, the visitors stepped it up a notch after the break and they went ahead in the 52nd minute when Dembele sent a clinical angled shot beyond McLaughlin after good work by Mikael Lustig and Tom Rogic to set him up.
Hearts staged a brief rally late on as they chased an equaliser, but Celtic got their third with the last kick of the game when Sinclair tapped into an open goal after being set up by fellow substitute Stuart Armstrong. By that time, Adao, Hearts’ best player on the day, had been substituted in order to avoid being sent off after being penalised on several occasions by Madden. “I took Joaquim off because, another foul, he was going to send him off,” said Levein. “I look at the fouls and think I wouldn’t mind if it was something overly aggressive. But he got penalised for just about everything he did. I thought he had a smashing game and I didn’t want to take him off. But we’ve got another game on Wednesday.”
That match, of course, is against Hibs, who require a victory at Tynecastle in order to remain in contention to finish second in the Premiership. It remains to be seen if Hearts will be trimming the grass for that one after Rodgers was annoyed by the length of it yesterday, implying that the hosts had deliberately allowed it to grow in order to make the surface difficult for his team to play football.
“I thought the win was outstanding but I’m a little bit embarrassed because of the pitch,” said the Celtic manager. “You talk about standards and this is a great club, Hearts. A really passionate club. But I felt for both sets of players. You saw it early on when the ball got thrown out and it actually sticks on the grass, it was that long.
“UEFA have a standard and Bobby Madden will tell you from all the countries that he referees in is that the grass has to be of a certain standard. This is not just to suit us, I’m talking in general. Stevie Naismith has played a lot of his life in the Premier League and their players have tried to play and can’t pass the ball!
“From a football perspective I was disappointed. It’s the first time in my life I’ve said to a team of mine that to play from the back is a huge risk. Why? Because the ball is going to stick.
“I said, ‘listen, we’ll need to play direct as we can’t build the game.’ We dominated the game, but from a football point of view and for spectators that wasn’t football.”
Levein was having none of it. “There wasn’t enough grass the last time,” he scoffed. “If they tell me exactly how much they want, we’ll try to get it right next time. Listen, I’m no interested in that.”