Hearts may have looked a touch travel weary during a poor first half, but after the interval they were in easily the best form they have shown this season, and deservedly went joint top of the league by defeating a Celtic side which was a shadow of the one which took the title last season.
Roman Bednar scored twice and had the ball in the net on another occasion when he was incorrectly ruled offside, but the home team’s victory was down to more than the finishing precision of the burly Czech. What had changed from recent matches was the ability of the midfield to link up with the strikers, with Bruno Aguiar in particular playing further forward.
Hearts began more keenly, and the first half-chance fell to them when a Michal Pospisil header from a Neil McCann cross was blocked for a corner by Stephen McManus.
With 20 minutes played, Bednar stole in ahead of the defence to rise to an Aguiar free-kick, but his glancing header flew past Artur Boruc’s right-hand post.
An injury to Ibrahim Tall, arising from a tackle from behind by Kenny Miller, saw the defender stretchered off and replaced by Robbie Neilson just before the half-hour mark.
It was indicative of the quality of play in the first half that the most entertaining moment of it came when managers Gordon Strachan and John McGlynn were sent to the stand for a heated argument during a stoppage for treatment to Brellier.
The Hearts assistant coach had objected to the Celtic manager’s suggestion that play should have continued, and Celtic’s assistant coach, Garry Pendrey, also became embroiled before the officials stepped in. Thankfully, the coaching staff of both sides managed to communicate such passionate commitment to their players during the interval, and the second half was immeasurably better than the first.
In the first real attack following the restart Bednar failed to get strong enough contact on an Aguiar contact and again glanced wide of Boruc’s goal, but within a minute the striker made amends. Aguiar won possession just inside the Celtic half, and directed a short pass to Pospisil. Glancing up, he saw his fellow-stiker make a run to the left, and passed to put him through.
Bearing down on Boruc, Bednar took two steadying touches before firing a left-foot shot low past the Polish goalkeeper.
Bednar had the ball in the net again just after the hour mark following a similar move, but by the time his shot had beaten Boruc, Stuart Dougal, who had stepped in as referee instead of the injured Kenny Clark, had blown his whistle. That decision, subsequently shown to have been incorrect, could in different circumstances have been the turning point of the match, for moments later Celtic were level.
It was evidence of Hearts’ territorial domination that when that equaliser did come it was as a consequence of a corner for the home side, but that should in no way detract from the splendour of the move.
Sweeping upfield at speed, Celtic attacked in numbers, and a crisp passing sequence involving Nakamura, Miller and Aidan McGeady ended with Stilian Petrov easily beating an exposed Craig Gordon with a confidently-placed shot.
The match looked destined to end in a draw until Neil Lennon intervened. Having come on for Miller, the club captain was punished for a woefully short back pass. Before Boruc could get there, Bednar nipped in, took one touch to drag the ball wide, and scored into the empty net.
A chant of “There’s only one Neil Lennon” rang out from the home support, which was at least a humorous moment on an afternoon when we had also been treated to a rendition of The Boys of the Old Brigade and a couple of chants of Ooh Ah Up the IRA from a section of the visiting support, plus a retaliatory Billy Boys from some Hearts fans in the main stand closest to the Celtic end.
Such exchanges suggested that Rangers will not be the only Scottish club subjected to the anti-sectarian attentions of UEFA.
There was still enough time for Aguiar to hit the bar in stoppage time, but not enough for Celtic to create any similar openings, and Hearts thus made it two wins out of two. This was the best evidence yet that they are moving in the right direction.
Hearts: Gordon, Tall, Pressley, Berra, Wallace, Mikoliunas, Brellier, Aguiar, McCann, Bednar, Pospisil